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Rethinking Counter-Piracy

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My WPR column this week:

That didn’t seem apparent two years ago, when Dr. Yoav Gortzak and I argued (.pdf) that increasing the density of naval forces off the Horn of Africa could have a major impact on Somali piracy. We assumed, apparently like many naval authorities, that a flotilla of sufficient size would allow navies to make contact with pirates in affected areas, and that this contact would quickly lead to the seizure or defeat of the pirates.

Both of these assumptions turned out to be overly optimistic. First, Somali piratesincreased their geographic scope of operations beyond the area that could be covered by the flotilla through the use of “mother ships” that extended their range deep into the Indian Ocean. Second, the naval flotilla has not yet been able to overcome the political and legal problems associated with defeating pirates once contact has been made.

This latter problem has several facets. Like insurgents, pirates have in some cases been difficult to distinguish from civilians. Indeed, sometimes peaceful fishermen can become pirates very quickly if opportune targets pass nearby. Meanwhile, states have been reluctant to arrest pirates because of evidentiary concerns, and because they don’t wish to clog their own legal systems with groups of captured pirates. Finally, navies have generally avoided taking hostile action against pirated vessels out of concern for the safety of hostages and of private property.

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