With the rescue of American Richard Phillips from the hands of pirates Sunday, there was a blip of good news from the Indian Ocean, but it remains a scandal that Somali pirates continue to routinely defeat the world's naval powers. And worse than this ongoing demonstration of cowardice is the financing of terrorists that results from the huge ransom payments these pirates are allowed to collect.
It is naive to assume that the millions paid annually in ransom to pirates merely enables them to purchase villas and fancy automobiles. Somalia is a country without government, where anarchy is being exploited by terrorist organizations. Although the threat that pirates pose to commercial ships is increasingly known, little is being done to combat it. And we must consider the bigger picture: Terrorists are far more brutal than pirates and can easily force pirates — petty thieves in comparison — to share their ransom money.
We already know that Somalia is an ideal fortress and headquarters for global terrorist activity. The United States has learned the painful lesson that Somalia is not an easy place for our military to establish law and order; two of our interventions there became embarrassing defeats — in 1993 and more recently in support of Ethiopian forces.
So why do we keep rewarding Somali pirates? How is this march of folly possible?
Start by blaming the timorous lawyers who advise the governments attempting to cope with the pirates such as those who had been engaged in a standoff with U.S. hostage negotiators in recent days. These lawyers misinterpret the Law of the Sea Treaty and the Geneva Conventions and fail to apply the powerful international laws that exist against piracy. The right of self-defense — a principle of international law — justifies killing pirates as they try to board a ship.
Nonetheless, entire crews are unarmed on the ships that sail through the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Shipowners pretend that they cannot trust their crews with weapons, but the facts don't add up. Even if owners don't want everyone aboard their ships to be carrying weapons, why couldn't they at least arm the captain and place two police officers on board?
When these unarmed crews watch pirates climb aboard their vessels, they can do little to fight back. And while the United States and many other naval powers keep warships in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, these ships cannot keep pirates from boarding commercial ships that have unarmed crews.
The international right of self-defense would also justify an inspection and quarantine regime off Somalia to seize and destroy all vessels that are found to be engaged in piracy. These inspections could reduce the likelihood that any government will find itself engaged in a hostage situation such as the one that played out in recent days. Furthermore, the U.N. Security Council should prohibit all ransom payments. If the crew of an attacked ship were held hostage, the Security Council could authorize a military blockade of Somalia until the hostages were released.
Cowardice will not defeat terrorism, nor will it stop the Somali pirates. If anything, continuing to meet the pirates' demands only acts as an incentive for more piracy.
Fred C. Ikle is a distinguished scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.