As soon as you start using the term pirate, unfortunately cute or nostalgic images of Johnny Depp and Long John Silver come to mind - "Avast, me hearties!" ("avast" means to stop or cease) and other lusty lingo. All that is best relegated to the world of children's stories (image, Playwood Toys). Today's real-world piracy is, as a Somali pirate phoning the wife of a European hostage said, all about "money, money."
We returned to Brussels over the weekend, as news came out about the liberation of the Belgian ship Pompei, which had been captured in April by Somali pirates operating as far away as the Indian Ocean waters of the Seychelles. No secret was made of the fact that a ransom had been paid, though the exact amount was not revealed. Belgian police and military personnel set forth to join up with the liberated crew, part of an investigation in pursuit of the pirates, who violated a 1928 Belgian law which provides for international jurisdiction by Belgian courts in matters of piracy committed against nationals.
Somali pirates may not exactly be quaking in their skiffs at the prospect of Belgian prosecutors dragging them off to Brussels, but Belgium's legal approach is at least novel. The payment, by the shipping company and/or its insurers, was made under duress, and was motivated as much by wanting to avoid physical harm to the crew as to protect its investment in this very specialized "side stone dumping vessel" (used in port dredging operations). And how many Somali pirates have simply been released after capture by international forces? At least the Belgians are setting the stage for prosecution.
Payouts to pirates have been made from time immemorial (see Richard Zacks' The Pirate Coast for an account of early U.S. travails with the Barbary Pirates of North Africa, which included ransoming of hostages), and given NATO and EU naval forces' inability to prevent all such incidents, will likely continue when Somalis successfully pick off unescorted vessels. La Libre Belgique tells us that recently the pirates have even taken to using Somali refugees as human shields when launching their assaults.
Naval patrols, ransom for hostages and vessels, prosecution in the (unlikely) event that names, fingerprints, and perps are matched up ... all these responses are in the panoply of the world's reactions to this scourge of international shipping (see the ICC's Live Piracy Map for a look at how the Horn of Africa is piracy ground zero). But how about the "kinetic" response? As Zacks' quotation of an old Barbary pirate maxim - "Whoever acts like a sheep, the wolf will eat" - a more muscular response - "Blow them out of the water!" - should be an important part of the international community's toolkit.
Classic criminals after "money, money," rather than Johann Hari's description in The Independent of the "Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia," are nonetheless an outgrowth of the anarchic conditions that have prevailed in Somalia for the better part of two decades. As Alain Lallemand in Brussels' Le Soir reminds us, it is in the West's interest to prevent Somalia from sinking under the weight of its multiple dysfunctionalities.
Taking the threats from Somalia seriously and using the impressive firepower on board all those naval vessels (Belgium, by the way, has offered to station armed military on board commercial vessels) has to be part of a wider strategy to encourage Somalia to rejoin the community of nations. And while the West is righteously indignant over piracy's threat to international trade, it must ensure that its own commercial vessels are not using the free-for-all in Somali waters to dump hazardous waste and rape the country's fisheries, as Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, UN envoy Somalia, alleged last year.
No need to give the "Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia" any patriotic pretexts for its piracy.