NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


December 1, 2008

This year, Somalia-based pirates have attacked more than 90 ships, seized more than 35 and currently hold 17.  Billions of dollars worth of cargo have been seized.  Some 280 crew members are being held hostage and 2 have been killed.  A multinational naval force has attempted to secure a corridor in the Gulf of Aden, through which 12 percent of the total volume of seaborne oil passes, and U.S., British and Indian naval ships have engaged the pirates by force.  Yet, the number of attacks keeps rising.

The problem is that we don't know what do with captured pirates, says the Wall Street Journal:

  • By the 18th century, pirates knew exactly where they stood in relation to the law; if they were captured, they were subject to hanging.
  • Severe as the penalty may now seem, it succeeded in mostly eliminating piracy by the late 19th century.
  • Today, a Navy captain who takes captured pirates aboard his warship will have a brig in which to keep them securely detained, and instantaneous communication through which he can obtain higher guidance and observe the rule of law.
  • In March 2006, the U.S. Navy took 11 pirates prisoner, 6 of whom were injured, and not wanting to set a precedent for trying pirates in U.S. courts, the State Department turned to Kenya to do the job.

Moreover, there just seems to be no controlling legal authority.  Title 18, Chapter 81 of the United States Code establishes a sentence of life in prison for pirates, but is only enforceable against pirates who attack U.S.-flagged vessels. Under Article 110 of the U.N.'s Law of the Sea Convention naval ships are required to send over a boarding party to find out if pirates are in fact pirates, says the Journal.

Source: Bret Stephens, "Why Don't We Hang Pirates Anymore?" Wall Street Journal, November 25, 2008.

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