Thoughts on the Somali Pirates

Stratfor’s podcast on the seizure of that Saudi oil tanker contained a fascinating tidbit: merchant ships are no longer allowed to carry arms at all, which, of course, makes piracy far easier. This is a dramatic transformation of the rights of merchant ships. Historically, private ships carried weapons when sailing far out of their own waters, and such weapons were an important deterrent to piracy.

As the nation state has claimed primacy over other entities, and exclusivity on the use of force, it has also worked an inter-national system based on the idea that only the state may employ violence. Entities which aren’t governments, say shipping conglomerates, don’t get a vote.

I didn’t realize that extended as far as officers of ships being unable to carry sidearms. I had wondered why ships sailing the Gulf of Eden didn’t convoy for mutual protection, and apparently the answer is that they can’t offer each other any. A few small machine guns would dramatically alter the payoff choices that pirates make. As is, they’re restricted to non-lethal means like water cannon.

Of course, to maintain it’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force, the state cannot allow even sidearms on ships. It also seems that it’s become hard to capture pirates. The Royal Navy has gone from hanging them to not capturing them to avoid claims of asylum in the UK. (Hanging pirates was in part a practical measure, given the lack of a secure brig on a smaller naval vessel, and the risk that the pirates would escape and capture their captors.) Of course, cheers for the Indian Navy have subsided somewhat, given that the pirate mothership they destroyed was a Thai ship with its crew held hostage inside.)


The fundamental trade, where the state has a monopoly on violence in exchange for preventing everyone else from employing violence, is a pretty good one when it works. (Assuming that rights including self-defense are not abrogated.)

But Somali pirates are only one of the ways in which the Westphillian system of national primacy is breaking down. Terrorism is another, as are the failure to deal with genocides in the Sudan or Congo.

6 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Somali Pirates

  1. I’ve heard that Somali pirates have been treating their captives very well, including providing entertainment. Might actually be safest for crews to not travel armed…

  2. You do not bring up the economics of shipping security at all in this post…
    The merchant boats could be armed, but a tight-fisted risk management model in an unregulated market led to sketchy calculations that did not properly anticipate threat. That’s not a fault of the state. Insurance companies treat arms now as liability, whereas they used to see them as controls. It’s a loophole game to make bigger margins.
    We know that a huge percentage of the world’s crude comes through this water, and many concerned statements have been made ad nausea about the impact to oil. Yet the companies were too busy looking at their bottom line to want to spend on security. So they have cut back without hesitation. State actors will be required to put some balance back into the model for two reasons:
    – Shipping companies claim insufficient capital to impact security on their own. This is not a monopolization model of security, but rather a function of thin margins and competition driving security out of the merchant marine and leaving them woefully unprepared for reality.
    – America’s policy of destabilization in Somalia is purposeful. They undermine sovereign states to keep borders open for special ops and avoid legal hurdles. So you could argue that the US had created the rise in threat, believing it to be an acceptable trade-off. The shipping companies would not mind so much, I bet, if the insurance companies were not so clever at avoiding liability and Navy ships would not be so trigger-happy.
    The Indian engagement was a disaster. They killed civilians and destroyed civilian property without netting a single pirate. The fact anyone could ever cheer this is sad.

  3. Another problem is that some of the most valuable cargos are impractical to protect with firearms. It would be suicidal to engage in a firefight while standing on top of two million barrels of crude oil.

  4. Davi,
    I believe that the losses are substantial and could be allocated more efficiently.
    David, there’s no reason to stand on top of the oil. You could have escort ships at a substantial distance, of say, a mile or two from an oil tanker.

  5. The arming of merchant ships is strictly forbidden under International Law — specifically, the 1856 “Declaration of Paris,” which among other things declared the practice of arming merchant vessels and of issuing Letters of Marque and Reprisal to “Privateers” to be themselves the moral equivalent of sanctioning piracy.
    Subsequent to the Declaration of Paris, only military vessels are allowed to mount deadly weapons of any type, and only military officers are allowed to be armed at sea.
    While no President of the U.S. Federal Government has ever signed the “Declaration of Paris” treaty, it has remained the policy of every President of the U.S. Government since 1861 that the owners, masters, and crews of all merchant ships flying the U.S. Flag must nevertheless abide by its terms.

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