Pirates Continue to Plague the Seas

February 4, 2010
By Maryann Lawlor
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A swash-buckling Johnny Depp may be what most think of when the word "pirate" is mentioned, but the problem is much more serious that anything Hollywood could portray. Today's WEST 2010 mid-day panel discussed just how critical this problem has become-especially off the coast of Somalia-and what is holding back solutions from being implemented. Moderator Dr. Virginia Lunsford did an excellent job of juggling as she encouraged each panel member-as well as audience members-to speak their minds about the problem. Perhaps the most candid member of the panel was Col. David W. Coffman, USMC, commander of the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit. He clearly expressed his frustration-as well as the frustration of his comrades in arms-in dealing with the piracy issue. The lack of clear commands for aggressively dealing with the issue has many "hitting our heads against the bulkheads," he said. His point was that they have been assigned the task to fight the war on piracy but when it comes to the decisions about what should or can be done, the waffling in the national and international communities begins. His comment "My answer about how to treat pirates? Kill them," received a round of applause from an audience comprising both service members and civilians who are fed up with pirates enjoying free reign. Col. Coffman clarified his opinion even further. Although it may be easy to just say "kill them," the reality is that it is not a task that can easily be followed through on. The challenge is not a matter of capabilities but rather a lack of a single-minded and strong will to solve the problem by fighting the war in the way that the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps has been trained to fight wars. "There is no appetite for kinetic operations to solve this problem," he stated. Although panel members agreed that piracy has become a business matter-it's more profitable to hold ships and crewmembers hostage than fish the waters off Somalia-agreeing on what is standing in the way of taking control of the situation and bringing the number of takeovers down was not as simple. While panelists pointed to national and international policies, others pointed out that without a resolution about the legal ramifications of piracy, capturing pirates is futile. This was one of the few panel sessions offered by any organization that ended with almost all audience members rushing the stage at the end of the one-hour discussion to continue the conversation and offer opinions to the experts. The comments ranged from purely simple solutions to the problem to the multitude of reasons fighting the war on piracy has become so complex.

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I used to be in the military and am now a lawyer involved with advising owners about the legalities and practicalities which arise in the hijacking of commercial ships. I understand the frustration of Col Coffman but it is wrong to talk of a "war" on pirates. They are not combatants and nor when caught are they subject to the Geneva Convention. They are criminals and the military frustration comes from the fact that they are being used in a law enforcement role for which they are not readily equipped. This is not merely a question of semantics. The war in Afghanistan and Iraq have shown how important it is for the military to act lawfully. In the US there is talk of a law giving immunity to those who use lethal force when defending US ships. In the UK the law on lethal force is very diffiult particulary where it is used in the defence of property.

The more valid question is why so many pairets (around 400) have simply been caught and then released. Piracy is a universal crime and yet where is the political will to prosecute these people ....why the reliance on Kenya. I know that the US has a pirate in NY and that is one more than the UK but its not a great effort when the ransoms seem to creep up inexorably.

There is no reason that ships being fired upon by pirates may not fire back in self defense. That such responsive firing might be done by military personnel assigned to protect merchant ships should not make any difference.

Some of us argue that piracy is a long-running war - perhaps the longest war in human history.

The handling of pirates may not always be simple, however our military forces need to have direction from our commander in chief as to what his intent is concerning this problem. If we are to use any means available to keep pirates from taking over a US flagged ship, then so be it, and allow those forces to use all means available to them including leathal force to carry out that intent. At some point in time the pirates that are left will figure it out and go back to fishing.

Thanks to all of you for taking the time to comment. The piracy problem is surely much larger than I ever thought...up until hearing these panelists. Because this involves the military, I plan to bring this topic up to our editor in chief as a story (or focus) idea. It's in need of some press.

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