The attention focused on the arraignment yesterday of the surviving Alabama pirate in federal court yesterday should not divert attention from the absolute failure of Western efforts against Somali piracy. The situation is not likely to improve, given the anti-piracy measures dramatically promised by the Obama Administration.
(In my too-slowly-forthcoming but particularly timely essay, “A Guantanamo on the Sea”: The Difficulty of Prosecuting Pirates and Terrorists, 98 Calif. Law. Rev., I predict many legal difficulties with policing and prosecuting piracy, which I argue explains the lack of aggressive action in the field or in the courtrooms. The new anti-piracy proposals are in keeping with this.
In the wake of the sudden public attention generated by the seizure of the U.S. vessel, both the president and Secretary of State Clinton vowed to crack down on the international criminals. But the measures they promised are pathetic. The highlight of Clinton’s four-point anti-piracy plan is to “seize pirate assets.” I admit when I first heard this I thought it was a joke. Pirates do not have money in London or New York banks. Somalis are more likely to have asses than assets. The pirates put in their booty into mansions, cars, multiple wives and qwat. How will Clinton freeze that?
Apparently “freezing assets” has become part of a rote litany of soft power diplomacy, along with travel restrictions and the like. The problem with such measures — and with things like universal jurisdiction, which often rely on them as enforcement tools — is that they're much more effective against leaders of Western democracies than a variety of Third World thugs. Somali pirates, like the North Korean Politburo, are not signing up for the Grand Tour of Italy, or a trip around England’s maze gardens. Such sanctions will be largely ineffective against them.
One can only hope that when such measures are discussed the sanctions against Iran to prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons, it is not meant to be such an obvious commitment to do nothing.
I am not being unfair to Clinton’s plans. The asset freeze is the most aggressive of her proposals, the rest of which include holding “meetings,” a “diplomatic team to engage” Somalia’s transitional government; and tasking other officials to “work” with the shipping industry on their self defense measures.
This is not the first time an administration has boldly announced it would put an end to Somali piracy and is not the first time in such announcements would be in vain. Last fall, after the hijacking of a Ukrainian ship, the Faina, carrying dozens of battle tanks, the Bush administration and other nations declared that the pirates have finally gone too far. Secretary of State Rice devoted considerable time and her last months in office working this issue at the United Nations. Yet those pirates got a ransom too, and the piracy epidemic has only increased.
Indeed, as I've recounted elsewhere, since the beginning of the piracy epidemic last summer the United Nations has passed five Security Council resolutions on the subject– all under its binding Chapter VII authority. No other issue, not even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (to say nothing of the bloody civil war in Sri Lanka or the ongoing genocide in Darfur) has commanded as much of the Council’s attention. Yet the piracy epidemic has only increased apace. In the days after Obama announced that the U.S. would be getting tough on pirates, as if to mock his words several more vessels were seized, including another American ship.