Friday, September 26, 2008

Now They've Got Tanks?

Piracy has long been a problem off of the Horn of Africa. More than 50 ships have been hijacked this year already, and million dollar ransoms are being paid out. Currently, about a dozen ships and more than 200 crew members are being held, and the International Maritime Bureau has issued warnings that the level of piracy now threatens global commerce.

But events took a drastic turn for the worse today. Somali pirates have captured a Ukrainian ship carrying 33 T-72 tanks that were on their way to Kenya. Not only were tanks seized, but the pirates also got away with grenade launchers and ammunition.

It's not entirely clear what a rag-tag bunch of pirates who operate on the high seas are going to do with tanks. Perhaps they'll try to sell them to interested parties in Africa, a development would could easily worsen many of the on-going civil wars raging across Africa.

Piracy is one of the clearest examples of jus cogens, a preemptory norm that creates a crime for which there is no possible justification and for which there is universal jurisdiction. Thus, anyone who wishes to act against the pirates is legally allowed to do so. However, that creates a problem -- in the absence of a specific jurisdiction, no one has the responsibility or strong incentive to act (why should one state bear the cost of enforcement when the cost of piracy falls on many?).

Interestingly, Russia has announced that it is dispatching a warship to the Horn of Africa to deal with piracy. This is a smart move by Russia, which has recently been looking for ways to burnish its image and to build ties to Africa. The US and/or NATO should do the same. Not only is there a fair amount of soft power to be gained by acting against pirates, but the US needs international shipping lines to remain open and unmolested. In days past, the British navy would have moved to deal with the pirates; today, that task should be taken up by the US.

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