The murder of four Americans by Somali pirates is not a remarkable event. Unfortunately, many others, mostly sailors, have been murdered, tortured and imprisoned for months. Eight were killed in 2010, 10 in 2009, and 11 in 2008.
But this time the victims are Americans, so it hits closer to home.
The two couples, Phyllis Macay and Robert Riggle, of Seattle, and the yacht's owners, Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey, Calif., were on an around-the-world sailing trip when they were captured by pirates Friday.
Certainly, the yacht's skipper made poor and ultimately fatal choices as he planned his final voyage. For more than a year there have been the most severe warnings directed to all mariners, from yachts to tankers, that the piracy peril was ever-present in the very waters where the yacht was taken.
What led to the pirates to murder the Americans? Answers are in short supply. Perhaps they resisted. Maybe the fact that the ship carried Bibles for distribution offended the Islamic pirates and triggered the murder. Sadly, we may never know.
But the one fact remains the American crew, whatever their errors in judgment , did not deserve to die at the pirates’ hands.
Hopefully, the U.S. Navy will be able to hunt down the pirates responsible and end their depravity once and for all. For the U.S. Navy, pirates are an old adversary -- and the Navy can do more if allowed to by the Obama administration.
But, in a larger sense, even capturing the pirates will not change the underlying dynamic. The truth is the pirates are winning. About 1,181 mariners were captured by pirates in 2010 from 52 ships. The average hostage spends about 7 months in brutal pirate captivity. The ransom for the VLCC Samho Dream was reportedly $9.5 million before the vessel was released in November 2010.
There is blame for all: lax mariners and ship owners; the shipping industry that campaigns against the arming of merchant vessels and their crews or the use of armed guards; and national governments that lack the political will to do what history tells us is required to deal with pirates.
It is imperative that the pirate bases be destroyed. Also, pirates must be denied access to the sea -- especially mother ships . And the prosecution of captured pirates in national courts is key to sending them a message. But these measures are not being taken.
A Danish frigate captured a mother ship and freed the fishing vessel crew that had been held hostage and used for slave labor for more than 4 months. The 2 skiffs were sunk. BUT THE CAPTURED PIRATES WERE SET FREE TO ATTACK AGAIN. This event highlights perfectly the failure of the current failed policy toward mother ships.
In a democracy, the Navy must obey the civilian masters. The civilian masters have not seen fit to approve changes in the Rules of Engagement that Navy commanders would need to hunt down mother ships. Think of the Royal Navy and they way it hunted down German surface raiders in the first year of World War II, effectively removing them from the sea. The same could easily be accomplished from a naval point of view. But the Royal Navy is under the same restriction as the other EU naval commands. The lack of political will to deal with pirates is conspicuous across the majority of nations.
In the U.S., the Navy will only deal with pirates and deal out consequences when U.S. ships or interests are involved. So, the U.S. Navy, like the Danish frigate, has freed many non-U.S. crews captured by pirates. But catch and release has unfortunately become the norm and is the de facto policy of not only the U.S., but the EU, Japan, Korea, and most of the other nations that have stationed warships to deter piracy.
Capturing mother ships will be meaningless if the pirates continue to face no consequence for their actions. That means a package needs to reach an international consensus that includes:
-- Changes in Rules of Engagement that require naval captains to seek out and capture or destroy mother ships. Close blockade of pirate bases to prevent mother ships from sailing. Hostages would be freed, but the pirates captured must be tried in the nations whose naval forces captured them. In other words no more catch and release.
-- Use of armed guards and escort vessels should be expressly authorized so that vessel owners can use them where appropriate. (I note the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) is well known for its long term opposition to these types of defensive measures. But the ICS cannot have it both ways, complaining about the lack of naval action and political will while letting shipping companies operate however they choose and providing comfort and legitimacy to vessel owners that are lax with their vessel security.)
-- Changes in domestic laws of nations that allow for prosecution of piracy in domestic courts for violations of the laws of nations regarding piracy. In other words, buying justice in Kenya or other local countries will not be favored. Every nation must do its part.
-- Naval actions such as raids to clean out pirate bases or at least naval actions to prevent new pirate vessels from reaching ports of haven in Somalia to include disabling vessels and tactics to wait out the pirates or recapture vessels if hostages are at risk.
So, until the problem arises to the level that nations feel their interests are negatively impacted to a degree that would cause some versions of the above package to be implemented, I am afraid the pirates will keep on winning. And they will be getting bolder.
Maybe the death of the four innocent Americans will lead to stronger U.S. actions. But the U.S. cannot solve the problem alone. Other nations must instruct their ships and back their captains when they engage pirates in mother ships, in their bases, and wherever they are encountered. Other nations must follow the U.S. example and prosecute pirates they capture.
If not, the four dead Americans will not be the last to suffer at the hands of the murderous pirates.
Doug Burnett is a maritime attorney with the firm Squire, Sanders & Dempsey.