Ah pirates. They're back in the news. Yes, they're still rounding up ships. And yes, the multilateral naval effort to stop them in the Gulf of Aden is still on the prowl. But today, U.S. assistant secretary for political-military affairs, Andrew J. Shapiro, gave the first real inside look at how the United States and others are going to up the ante: in court.
Wait, uh, hasn't anyone tried that before? Well yes. But here's why it's harder than it sounds. As Shapiro put it so eloquently in his speech today at American University: "in any given piracy case you could have suspected Somali pirates intercepted and apprehended by a British naval vessel after trying to attack a Liberian-flagged ship, owned by a Canadian company, crewed by Ukrainians, Indians, and Filipinos, with a Russian captain and carrying cargo owned by a Turkish company, en route for delivery to a company in Dubai." On top of that, he names a slew of other technical difficulties: lack of pertinent legislation in some countries, lack of political will in others, lack of money for trials in others. Also, how do you collect evidence at sea? Much harder than it sounds. So is summoning witnesses. And many government's are simply afraid that if pirates are released -- either by acquittal or after having served their sentences -- they'll stick around in the court's country.
Never fear! Like Thomas Jefferson did in the 18th Century, we, the United States, have a plan!
Turns out, we've got a lot of working groups working on this. And one, led by Denmark, is leading the charge to get the pirates into court. Here are a few of the intriguing -- dare I say snazzy -- tricks they are trying, or may try:
1) A U.N. Trust Fund has been setup to help financially support countries that try pirates with the necessary legal costs. Obvious beneficiaries might include Kenya, which is already prosecuting some pirates but lacks the resources to carry a heavy caseload.
2) "Biometrics might be an option," Shapiro says, "allowing for more effective tracking of individuals previously stopped by naval forces for suspicious maritime activities." (forgive my skepticism, but do we really want to invest the necessary time and funds in this, for a scourge that, while annoying, really isn't a huge national security threat?)
3) "Another route might be a more selective pursuit of prosecutions, trying only the most senior pirate leaders among a crew of suspects." (Very curious how this would be determined; I imagine the pirates don't exactly have dog tags to betray their various levels of seniority...)
4) And finally, the U.S. and allies are looking into ways that pirates could be put on trial pre-emptively -- for the "intention" to committ piracy. Don't look for this to win any hearts and minds in Somalia, if any old fishing skiff could be brought to trial for piracy. After all, the pirates claim that their roots derive from the desire to protect Somali fisherman from the exploitation of foreign fishing vessels.
I'm fascinated by all this, but don't expect to see the pirates on trial anytime soon: Says Shapiro, "Unfortunately, at this moment in time, that ability [to prosecute pirates] appears to be quite limited."
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