Remember the olden days, when Vikings ruled Western Europe through piracy? With a lack of any real centralized power in Europe, the Vikings found freedom (as Jack Sparrow would say) in their pirate ships. A millennium later, Somalia presents pirates with a very similar opportunity to medieval Europe. The country has been without an effective government since 1991 and for two decades has existed in a state of constant civil war. In a country with no official or strong authority and a lack of alternative methods for its population to make a living, piracy is too easy and too tempting.
This week, five Somali men were convicted of attacking an American Navy ship. Ironically, the USS Nicholas was on an anti-piracy mission. Their life sentence is the first conviction of piracy (by an American jury) since 1820, in which the pirate was hanged (as was typical). In many cases today, however, captured pirates are simply released when a country is unsure of how to prosecute crimes committed in international waters.
It seems that piracy is becoming a much bigger problem -- the noted attacks are more violent and the pirates are requesting higher ransoms. Most of the time, hostages taken by Somali pirates are looked after fairly well until a ransom is paid, but pirates are becoming more aggressive when they board targeted vessels. An increased frequency of attacks, coupled with an unsure legal system to deal with them, has led to the current situation of around 750 Somali men in 14 different countries waiting for their piracy trials.
Some of these pirates are former fishermen who say they've lost much of their business by trawlers from around the world taking advantage of Somalia's lack of government to over-fish its waters. Piracy costs the global economy from $7-12 billion a year, making it by far a more profitable and viable option than fishing, especially in a country where half the population has too little food.
Until recently, the world's legal powers have acted only rarely to punish acts of piracy and depended primarily on Kenya's underfunded justice system. Last year, Kenyan legal workers complained that they weren't receiving enough financial support from other countries to deal with the growing number of cases. They were right -- piracy is a global problem and Kenya shouldn't be the only country attempting to deal with it, nor should the sole solution be to catch and imprison the pirates.
The UN has considered setting up an international maritime piracy tribunal and in April called for all nations to criminalize piracy domestically. There have even been proposals for an international prison for convicted pirates. Many respond, however, that such a tribunal would be costly and time-consuming. While it is becoming very obvious that our world legal system needs fixing in order to deal properly with pirates, we also need to consider the motivations behind the crime.
Poverty cannot be solved instantly or effectively by throwing money at it, but surely that $7-12 billion in ransom money would be better spent on education for Somali kids, rebuilding towns (namely Eyl) and reinstating some form of government. The causes and motivations of piracy need addressing: we cannot encourage a practice that belongs in the medieval period.