18 November 2008


The recent rise of piracy on the high seas, with even very large cargo ships being taken over, is a troubling development. And as experts point out, military action can't really solve this problem effectively. It doesn't make much sense for the U.S. Navy or the Royal Air Force to send a grain freighter or oil tanker to the bottom of the sea --- and such an approach would be fraught with legal difficulties. And even if one boards a pirated ship to take it back, what procedures does one use to arrest the pirates? Which nation's forces ought to do it? What rights would the suspected pirates have, and in which country's court system?

Analysts said, however, that the seizure of the Sirius Star exposed the use of foreign warships as “a sticking plaster” that would not solve the problem. “Maritime security operations in that area are addressing the symptoms not the causes,” said Jason Alderwick, a maritime defence analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Roger Middleton, a Horn of Africa specialist at the Chatham House think-tank, said that the capture was a crucial escalation. “Now that they have shown they are able to seize an enormous ship like this, it is beyond a military solution. You won’t fix this without a political solution.”

I'm not an expert in the subject, but here's a quick thought for what it's worth: Why not have the U.S. Congress issue Letters of Marque to private mercenaries ("privateers"), who could then act with official government sanction --- but outside official government channels --- to take these pirated ships back. The shipping companies, or their insurance companies, could pay a bounty to these privateers when the ship and cargo were successfully recovered --- not unlike the way repo men are compensated. No sovereign military need involve itself in the conflict, and what happens to the original pirates during these operations needs not be a concern of the U.S. government.

The Atlantic Monthly published a long and fascinating article several years ago called "Anarchy at Sea," describing the operations of one band of modern pirates, and how easy it was for them to capture commercial vessels. The piece speculated about a few possible solutions, but came to no firm conclusions as to how best to solve the problem.

I wonder if some variant on Letters of Marque might just do the trick. It's one of the least-used enumerated powers in the U.S. Constitution, but may prove itself as useful today as it seemed to our Framers 220 years ago.

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