What's So Hard About Stopping Piracy?

by | Apr 9, 2011

By Laurence Smallman, defense research analyst, RAND Corp. (www.rand.org), Arlington, Va.

The recent killing of American hostages by Somali pirates perhaps has set aside any Robin Hood-like notions that some may have had about the intent, determination, and ruthlessness of modern pirates. Pirates, Somali or otherwise, are considered enemies of all mankind for good reason, as Amitai Etzioni explains carefully in the Winter 2011 edition of the Canadian Naval Review.
My RAND colleague Peter Chalk has written extensively that such murders and the ransom lure likely will increase in the future; we both believe that the best results maritime forces can achieve at sea is containment of a problem that arises from conditions on land. Yet containment at sea through the coordinated action of many nations may be the only option for many years. If that is the case, can modern Earth observation satellites and other detection systems significantly contribute to international law enforcement?

Piracy can be considered a symptom of a much wider malaise”that of persistent maritime disorder.  This disorder may arise from the interplay of many factors that can be grouped under the broad headings of governance, society, and economy. Where there are imperfections in these factors or their interaction, persistent disorder can occur. This disorder can be exploited, and it is the intent and capability of the perpetrators that determines the crime.  From this perspective, the problem of piracy is just one of the potential crimes that may occur at sea.

Tackling persistent maritime disorder will require rectification of the underlying factors and the way they interact. In the case of Somalia, weak governance on land is the likely key. Addressing the problem at sea”concentrating on just one symptom”may contain that one symptom, but it is unlikely to address the underlying problem. Indeed, the evidence so far suggests that despite the expense of naval patrols and other international actions, piracy in the Indian Ocean is increasing.

Containing persistent maritime disorder might be more fruitful and could lay the foundations for a successful transition to better use of the sea once the societal factors”an even longer term problem”have been resolved.  This approach will require a broader undertaking for law enforcement by the international community, including a United Nations (UN) resolution and overcoming the underlying problems described by Etzioni. Such efforts could simplify the work of the law enforcement forces, by allowing for a more expansive enforcement role, and begin to put in place the conditions for the more normal and legal exploitation of the waters off the Horn of Africa.  After all, some Somalis claim that it was illegal fishing and illegal dumping of waste that led them to piracy.

The international community could contain the disorder by stopping such activity and continuing with the anti- and counter-piracy mission.  For example, it could solicit the UN to establish a fisheries regime that raises revenue for Somalia, protects authorized fishermen, thus removing the need for them to carry arms to sea, and begins the process of managing the fish stocks.

It might be that in such a normal law enforcement environment the tools of modern collection and the follow-on analytical support could become more effective. Today's collection systems can provide little meaningful help to the operational and tactical commanders at sea.  How do they decide at present which vessels to intercept and on what legal basis do they do so and then hold the suspected pirates?  Are those at sea dealing with the inadequacies of international policy and the legal complexities that should be resolved in capitals?

It would be much easier if immediate identification of pirates was possible; regrettably, pirates no longer conform to the hackneyed dress code of the fictional character. Otherwise the Earth observation satellite or unmanned aerial vehicle equipped with parrot detector, wooden leg spectrometer, or eye patch add-on would be in its element and the normal processes of picture compilation could be sidestepped.

Real-world operations make boundaries and distinctions much harder.  Those at sea need help to make the operational and tactical decisions that can make their mission successful.  The first step is to simplify the nature of the law enforcement operation so that maritime forces deal with persistent maritime disorder and contain all crime.  This would make it easier for commanders at sea to act on information that indicates perpetrators intend to commit a crime.

Presently there is no crime of intent to commit piracy”the crime occurs only after the act. It would then be easier to use modern collection systems to spot, for example, anomalous behavior that may indicate the intent of perpetrators to commit any type of criminal activity, rather than facing the current problem of correctly classifying or identifying pirates.

There also is a need to balance decisions on interdiction with the potential targets and their location.  Do we board vessels classified as contacts of interest or those identified as assumed pirates?  Within a changed law enforcement remit, modern collection systems might be able to help. Those in skiffs with weapons should be considered criminals without the need to wait for the piracy trigger.  Vessels found dumping illegally should be prosecuted.  Illegal fishing should be prevented, and so on.

Ultimately, the approach of the international community to the symptom of piracy arising from persistent maritime disorder needs review.  If the underlying problem is addressed so that crime of any type is tackled, modern collection systems and analytic methods will be able to play a crucial role in preventing piracy and capturing pirates, as well as returning a sea to normal activity.

A new approach to counter all crime will place the law enforcement activities directed toward piracy on surer footing. Finding criminals could be made easier, in part because the distinctions between pirates and others will no longer be important.  There are hurdles, of course, including agreement at the UN for a change in mandate. Yet without a new approach it is difficult to see how the increasing problem of Somali piracy, and of piracy elsewhere, can be confronted, with or without the assistance of modern collection systems.


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