How to End Piracy

Lessons from the Last Decade

Suspected pirates in Mombasa, Kenya, June 2009. Joseph Okanga / Courtesy Reuters

Maritime piracy is by definition a crime of the sea, but one that has deep roots onshore. Pirates need safe havens that provide them with vessels and supplies—and, crucially, the means of getting their stolen goods to market.

Understanding this, governments have traditionally combatted piracy not only with warships, but also with boots on the ground. From ancient Rome to Qing dynasty China to seventeenth-century England, sovereign states have undermined pirates by uprooting coastal villages, burning boats, and executing collaborators. And that has been the case for the United States, too. In 1805, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson deployed a small force of Marines and mercenaries to Derne, a port city on the coast of modern-day Libya, as part of a larger campaign to halt Barbary piracy against American merchant ships—an event immortalized in the official Marines hymn. (The Marines “fight our country’s battles,” the song goes, “from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.”)

So when pirates began wreaking havoc along a major international shipping route off the coast of Somalia in 2007 and 2008, at least some were expecting governments to take a similar approach. By 2009, following two years of increasing attacks on commercial boats, some experts were beating war drums. Tom Wilkerson, the head of the U.S. Naval Institute and a former two-star Marine general, advised a return to the “Jefferson model” of antipiracy. “Take on the pirates where they are,” he wrote, “rather than guessing where they will be.” And John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, called for an invasion of Somalia that would “end the problem once and for all.” 

But in a departure from precedent, governments took a different path. Few states were willing to take the risk of sending their troops into harms way, but many of them felt the pressure to act. In 2008, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1851, which called for an international cooperation mechanism that would “act as a common point of contact

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