Prosecuting pirates on the high seas

Moriah Schervone ('11)/ Eastside Global Commentary Editor and Moriah Schervone ('11)/ Eastside Global Commentary Editor

Even though pirates no longer carry swords or brandish parrots on their shoulders, today’s pirates are affecting more people and nations than ever before. The pirate empire in Somalia is growing exponentially every year. The International Chamber of Congress’s International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Centre (IMB PRC) has recently reported that attacks of piracy have increased significantly since 2006. As attacks become more frequent and ferocious, the threat to international trade is steadily growing and needs to be stopped. Because each ship has so many different countries invested in it, piracy is a problem many nations face that must be further addressed by the global community.

Ship owners, flag nations, crew, cargo owners and insurance companies all can come from various countries representing multiple interests in protecting international shipping. Although a majority of recently reported attacks have occurred off the eastern coast of Africa, the Somali pirate influence is spreading.  According to Wikileaks, attacks are also occurring off the western coast of Africa from Nigeria.

Despite the large number of people involved and affected by pirate attacks, no one seems to be able to actually prevent the attacks and punish those who commit them. The solutions implemented by various countries include allowing the crew on the ships to arm themselves and having warships patrol the shipping lanes. Even though this can stop pirates from effectively taking over ships, another problem arises: what should be done with pirates after they are stopped?

This past January, South Korean naval forces freed a hijacked ship and detained five Somalian pirates. The pirates were sent to South Korea and charged with maritime robbery and attempted murder. In February, after four Americans were killed on their yacht, The Quest, U.S. naval forces boarded the yacht and detained 13 pirates. Unconfirmed reports indicate that these pirates will stand trial in U.S. courts.

Currently, sea faring nations, including the United States, are debating over the holding and trial location for the pirates. One argument is that the pirates should be put on trial in America and even be held in our jails. Another urges pirates to be sent to an international court in The Hague. A third argument says they should be tried in foreign states and returned to Somalia, or their indigenous country, to serve their sentences. The latter idea is clearly faulty, as many pirates originate in countries with little to no stable government. Sending the pirates back to these countries will not guarantee that the pirates will be given proper punishment, or that other pirates will be deterred. This debate needs to be resolved before piracy truly runs rampant.

Although the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has given its 161 members some guidelines on how to deal with pirates, the guidelines are so vague that no one has seriously been able to solve the problem. The United Nations as a whole, a body with more members and more responsibility than UNCLOS, should be in charge of taking care of the pirates.

A solution for dealing with detained pirates should involve a floating court and jail system. A ship, operated by the United Nations, should function as a court for those who are convicted of piracy. The judges, lawyers and any other workers on the ship should be U.N. employees with an extensive background in piracy. If the pirate is from a country with a stable and competent government, the sentence determined by the court should be carried out in the pirate’s native country. If the pirate is from a country with a very unstable government, like Somalia, the pirate will have to stay on the floating court, carrying out the sentence on the court’s jail. In the jails, the prisoners should serve their sentence by helping to maintain the ship and by acts benefiting the poor, such as fishing for Third World countries. With an actual ad hoc court system enforced by the U.N., other countries will not have to worry about the red tap involved in determining which of the countries has jurisdiction over the pirates. Furthermore, the pirates will not be released due to a lack of clear jurisdiction to only then continue committing crimes.

Pirates need to know that there is a significant chance of being captured and punished… although they may not have to worry about walking the plank.