Tuesday, April 14, 2009

US anti-pirate action doesn't stand up to scrutiny

At last, the drama is over. The “scurrilous” and “ruthless” pirates are dead and the “heroic” US captain has been released.

Undoubtedly Captain Richard Phillips, who spent five days on a lifeboat being held hostage by Somali pirates, acted bravely. He gave himself up to safeguard the crew of the Maersk Alabama and even plunged into the ocean in an attempt to swim to a nearby US Navy destroyer.

What is more interesting is the media coverage portraying the pirates as ruthless – a complete misrepresentation if ever there was one. In the many years of frenetic pirate activity, there have been very few hostage deaths.

The last hostage to have been killed by pirates was a Taiwanese seaman, who died in unclear circumstances two years ago shortly after his ship was seized. Piracy experts say this was an isloated incident. Then last year, a Russian seaman died of a heart attack while he was being held hostage. Last week, the owner of French yacht was shot along with two pirates during an operation to free his boat. France has admitted he may have been killed by his rescuers. At no point has a single hostage been executed.

On the other hand, the pirates are not simple fishermen defending their coastline, as some of their defenders like to make out. After dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted in 1991, many countries took advantage of the chaos to fish illegally and and dump toxic waste in Somalia waters. Piracy began as a movement among fishermen aimed at curbing these practices. Now, however, it is an industry all of its own. Young men, most of whom have few other options, join up to make easy money and the pirates are certainly not restricting themselves to fishing vessels in Somali waters.

The pirates are criminals; nothing more, nothing less.

However, portraying the pirates as dastardly murderers makes it easier to justify the US action. Supposedly President Barack Obama had given a standing order to take out the captors if Phillips' life was in danger. The on-scene commander then made a “split-second decision” that Phillips was indeed in danger, something that most newspapers have happily swallowed.

Of course, it is never possible to really know what happened from a distance, but the decision to kill does not seem to stand up to scrutiny.

Firstly, given that the pirates have never before executed a hostage, there was no precedent to suggest that this group would be prepared to kill Phillips. All previous evidence points to hostages only being in danger when rescue attempts are made. Secondly, Phillips was the pirates only hostage. Were they really going to shoot him, thus blowing their only bargaining chip and sealing their fates?

The justification is that the pirates had an AK-47 pointed at Phillips' head. Frankly, I would have been surprised if the pirates had not been pointing a gun at him, particularly given the state of play at the time. One of the pirates was on the USS Bainbridge, trying to negotiate safe passage in exchange for Phillips. If I were a pirate on the lifeboat, I would have been pointing the gun at Phillips. Generally, it is what hostage takers do. I am quite sure that was not the first time they had pointed a gun at the captain during the five-day standoff.

What seems far more likely is that, with a clear shot at all three pirates on the boat, the on-scene commander took the decision to finish the standoff rather than drag it out and possibly end up with the embarrassing scenario of three US destroyers having to allow four pirates to slink away unpunished in exchange for Phillips' freedom.

Whether this was the real order that came from the top is anybody's guess. Regardless, the attack – coupled with France's freeing of the yacht – is not good news for the 230 or so other hostages currently being held and for those that may be taken in the future.

Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, warned that the American operation “could escalate violence in this part of the world.” Pirate groups are already threatening to kill US and French hostages in retaliation for the two actions. This could be bluster. But the next time pirates are surrounded by warships, they may well be that little bit more nervous and far more likely to pull the trigger.

The use of force is an important tool in ending piracy off Somalia. But it should be used only when hostages' lives really are in danger. It should certainly not be used in isolation without thought for the consequences.

Tackle insecurity and poverty in Somalia, give commercial ships more defensive capability, encourage shipping companies to stop paying ransoms, and storm ships as a last resort. Only then will piracy begin to fall.

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