UN Authorizes Attacks on Pirates on Land or Sea
The UN Security Council has passed unanimously a US drafted resolution authorizing attacks upon pirates, whether by land or sea. It is one of those rare security issues in which the great powers, and many small ones, have been willing to come together, at least in granting authority. As the Washington Post reports:
The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously Tuesday to authorize nations to conduct military raids, on land and by air, against pirates plying the waters off the Somalia coast even as two more ships were reportedly hijacked at sea.
The vote represented a major escalation by the world’s big powers in the fight against the pirates, who have disrupted commerce along one of the world’s most active sea routes and acquired tens of millions of dollars in ransom. It came as China — which has had several ships commandeered in recent months — said it is seriously considering joining U.S., European and Russian warships policing the region.
The U.S.-drafted resolution authorizes nations to “use all necessary measures that are appropriate in Somalia” in pursuit of pirates, as long as they are approved by the country’s transitional federal government. The resolution also urges states to deploy naval vessels and military aircraft to carry out the operations, and it calls for the creation of a regional office to coordinate the international effort.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who personally pushed for the resolution’s passage, said the vote sends “a strong signal of commitment to combat the scourge of piracy. Piracy currently pays. But worse, pirates pay few costs for their criminality; their dens in Somalia provide refuge from the naval ships in the Gulf of Aden.”
The difficulty is that moving on from diplomatic agreement to actual action, beyond sending warships to police the vast area, presents many practical problems. Many of them are logistical – the area of ocean is huge, the targets dispersed, but easily identifiable to pirates increasingly equipped with more and more modern gear. Some of them are legal – the US tends to take a middle road on the rules of engagement involving force, as between the Western European tendency to avoid force in this as in nearly everything else, on the one hand, and what might be a heavy handed assault tendency on the part of Russian, or perhaps Chinese, special forces, with many possibilities of loss of hostage (ie, civilian crew) lives and potentially even more as collateral damage if attacks took place on land, in the ports.
But there is a still further political problem that might arise: so far, the pirates have not made political claims, apart from various claims about loss of fishing grounds, etc. But if attacks were to come on them in a serious way, particularly on land, in their ports, with risks to civilians, it would not be surprising at all if the conflict were suddenly politicized, and if the pirates began making claims of autonomy, struggles of national resistance, anti-colonialism, etc. Sure, the Security Council would presumably not be impressed, but these kinds of claims obviously might resonate in the port towns themselves, among the civilian population that has been, so far, mightily impressed with the brazen actions of the pirates and even more impressed with the ransom hauls. What looks today to be simply the imposition of order on criminals looks tomorrow like a guerrilla struggle of sorts.
And it wouldn’t be surprising if the stakes were raised very quickly around the fate of the hostages – those being held now and hostages taken in the future. Up to now, the fact that ransom has been paid without a lot of fighting, resistance, or struggle has helped induce the pirates to treat their victims reasonably well – playing into the light hearted brigand image, people aren’t really getting killed and all. This is all just a matter of financial extortion of international insurance companies. But that could very quickly change – and if that started to tip, then international forces would have to be prepared, presumably, drastically to up their interventions, both to protect hostages and potential hostages on vessels (because the pirates would now have an incentive to grab as many as quickly as possible), to reduce the ability of the pirates to go to sea or go to great distances at sea. The question is whether anyone would want to intervene on land, with all the pitfalls that raises.
So it is one thing to have an agreement in principle that force is authorized. It is another thing for someone to step up and use that force; all the usual freeriding problems arise, as well as the inevitable sniping at whoever (read US) uses force, to say post hoc that it could surely have been done with less damage. And it is still another thing for the US to agree that the use of force, or plans for it, is sufficiently controlled in its strategic aim and its tactical rules of engagement; what the US believes is sufficiently controlled and what the Russians think might not be completely in synch. That, in a situation that is far more politically complicated on the ground than the vast majority of us understand.
I’ve suggested on this blog that the Obama administration might see pirates as a matter in which it could show its new approach to multilateral issues involving the potential use of force, and I still think that’s right. But, although not an Africa specialist in any sense, I do understand, from conversations with people in the US military as well as area specialists at places like the Rift Valley Institute, that it is a much more complicated potential operation than meets the outside eye. On the other hand, the longer the local economies have to adjust to life as pirates, becoming dependent upon ransom and booty, the harder the structure will become to change in the future. I hope the Obama administration will see this as something that urgently needs to be done, as well as an opportunity to show its new multilateralism in a situation where that is exactly what is called for. But it also needs to heed very carefully the practical advice of people close to the ground.