Friday, December 5, 2008

On Piracy

I don't get it.

No competent business owner sends a payroll, or a day's receipts, or anything else of significant value across midtown Manhattan without protection. Armed guards watch while the cashbox is transferred to the armored car, ride along with it for the eight or nine blocks, and supervise its transfer to its destination. It's just common sense.

Other businesses, though, send hundreds of millions of dollars worth of shipping through the Gulf of Aden or the Malacca Straight with no protection at all. Okay, maybe the captain has a revolver, but so what? If you're going to send hundreds of millions of dollars worth of ships and cargo through areas that appear to be quite a bit more dangerous than midtown Manhattan, wouldn't it make sense to hire a private security company to protect them?

Picture this: a cargo ship, say, 600 feet long, is happily chugging along when two motorized rubber rafts, each holding half a dozen illiterate Somali fishermen with AK-47s and, perhaps, grenade launchers appear in the distance. What will the captain do?

Currently, he'll try to outrun them. Maybe he'll make his getaway, maybe not. But what if he has a team of three or four private security contractors aboard -- say, from Triple Canopy or Blackwater -- and suppose they came equipped with a rocket launcher? Pirates, kiss your asses goodbye.

According to Douglas R. Burgess, Jr. in today's Times, the naval vessels from various countries now patrolling off the coast of Somalia may be ineffective because they're caught in a kind of legal limbo, forced to decide whether pirates are "ordinary criminals, or a quasi-military force." Actually, a more significant problem is that there's a lot of open water out there, and navy ships can't be everywhere at once. The establishment of a protected shipping corridor off the coast of Somalia has offered good protection for the ships that use it, but one wonders to what extent, if any, the private shippers who use the corridor compensate the US and European countries which maintain it. Saudi Aramco, for one, certainly can afford to do so.

Anyway, pirates are likely to see a strong risk of being blown out of the water by any target ship they might attack as a bit more discouraging than the difficulty of finding prey outside the protected corridor.

As far as I know, the legal principle of self-defense applies across all state boundaries, worldwide, and that certainly is the case in international waters. It's time for shipping companies to start looking out for their own interests. There is no shortage of mercenary forces in the world, and no shortage of armaments. If a ship and its cargo are important enough to be sent through dangerous waters, the ship's owners should be willing to pay for protection.

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