Outside editoiral: Securing the seas

Posted: Wednesday, April 15, 2009

But what about next time? That's the lingering question after Sunday's daring rescue of merchant ship Capt. Richard Phillips.

U.S. Navy SEALs marksmen killed three Somali pirates holding Phillips captive in a lifeboat, ending a five-day ordeal that began with the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama cargo ship.

Other than the positive outcome - the rescue of Phillips and his crew, and the recovery of the cargo ship filled with food aid for Kenya - there was little about the harrowing incident one would want to see repeated.

It's a miracle there was even an opportunity to save Phillips, who had tried to flee his captors on Friday. He's a true hero, who had bartered his own captivity for the release of his crew.

It would be unreasonable to expect such bravery of other cargo-ship captains. Instead, what's needed is a viable strategy to rid the high seas of pirates. But that's not so simple.

Comparisons to the Barbary pirates, who plundered merchant vessels 200 years ago, aren't accurate. But it should be remembered that the Barbary pirates' demise required not only the U.S. Marines storming Tripoli, but also treaties with the North African nations that had been giving the pirates safe haven.

Any treaty with Somalia today would likely be worthless. Its government has little authority in a land where warlords call the shots. Indeed, gunmen in Mogadishu fired mortars at a plane carrying U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., on Monday. The chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus had come to discuss improved U.S. relations with the beleaguered Somali government.

Neither is arming the crews of merchant ships the solution. While the seamen might on occasion repel boarders, the chances of a crew member being killed would grow exponentially. The subsequent cost of insuring a vessel is a primary reason shipping companies resist arming crews.

The U.S. Navy did rescue the Alabama, but the closest Navy ship was 300 miles away when the episode began. It's nigh impossible to police a million square miles of open sea. Each year, 20,000 ships pass through the pirate-prone Gulf of Aden, adjacent to the Indian Ocean. Their cargoes include 12 percent of the world's daily oil supply.

An ultimate solution to piracy, as outlined in a recent paper by Naval War College professor James Kraska and senior Navy lawyer Brian Wilson, requires international cooperation.

The United States can't do it alone. Through the United Nations, naval efforts can be coordinated and countries can work together to track down, prosecute, and jail pirates.

Until pirates fear justice, they will continue to terrorize the oceans.

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