Pesky pirates

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Pirates are alive in the modern world. Not sexy and cuddly ones like Johnny Depp in the Pirates of the Carribbean movies, not the singing Pirates of Penzance or the scary Blackbeard, but real pirates who steal, hijack ships and murder people. And they happen to have made their home in Somalia. These new pirates are a serious concern for the world, especially when they can harm trade and reconstruction.

Somali pirates have been in the headlines recently, with their hijacking of the Ukrainian cargo ship MV Faina, carrying 33 Soviet T-72 tanks destined for south Sudan, but they have been a problem since 1992, when warlords started taking control of the country. Anarchy has left a sad legacy there, with no local government to look after its people, ensure their health and fight against poverty. The International Maritime Organization reported there have been 55 attacks by Somali pirates this year, costing up to $30 million, including lost supplies and paid ransoms for hostages. Warlords also attacked ships delivering UN food aid. The attacks have threatened shipping and sabotaged the delivery of food to more than half a million people in need of aid. Ship owners have been demanding armed escorts to travel without harassment. According to BBC News, the NATO military alliance is planning on dispatching a joint task force to deal with the problem, with Canada providing several warships such as HMS Iroquois.

Worldwide trade losses have been estimated at U.S. $16 billion per year in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, off the Somali coast, in the Strait of Malacca and around Singapore. With the high price of oil grounding transport planes and trucks, companies and governments are increasingly relying on cargo ships to transport items like weapons, medicine and food. For commercial and shipping reasons, cargo ships have to sail with low cruising speeds, often through narrow bodies of water, which makes them easy targets for pirates. The pirates operating off Somalia often use small and quick motorboats to hit and retreat.

Alarmingly, modern pirates are not afraid to attack civilians. That can be seen in how pirates armed with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns attacked the Seabourn Spirit, an American cruise ship off Somalia in Nov. 2005. Another example was when a French luxury yacht, Le Ponant, was captured off Somalia last April, by pirates who held the hostages for ransom in a village before French special forces rescued them and captured six pirates. They even murdered a New Zealand environmental leader in one case. If they feel there is no ransom, there is nothing to stop them from killing civilians.

The international community needs to increase its efforts to help rebuild a central government in Somalia and ensure the Somali government has enough assistance to subdue the pirates. There are historical precedents for dealing with pirates. In 67 B.C., the Roman Republic gathered a large navy, commanded by Pompey the Great, to destroy Mediterranean pirates who strangled trade in the Mediterranean sea and brought impoverishment. In the age of the British Empire, the British sent its navy after pirates, marched its redcoat soldiers on land to destroy pirate villages and forced several into retirement with the threat of bounty hunters. Concerned by attacks on American civilians in the 18th century, the United States sent frigates to destroy the Barbary Pirates in two wars. Both NATO and the United Nations has realized the necessary of doing so, with the UN passing resolutions permitting military strikes against Somali pirates. For the sake of international trade and security, actions need to be taken before traders become more reluctant to ship their supplies and impoverishment gets worse.