Somali Pirates Seize American Ship and Crew

by Kenneth Anderson

(Update:  It appears that the ship has been retaken, by the crew, according to the NYT.  There have also been some reports that at least one pirate is in custody, or anyway control, of the crew.  Here, then, is my question.  If one of the (alleged) pirates has been taken into custody, what should legally follow?  The US has been pursuing, as I understand it, a policy of turning them over to Kenya for trial – but none of those situations involved Americans and an American-flagged vessel.  Should the fact that those attacked were Americans make a difference to the US legal response (if those are indeed the facts, which are uncertain at this writing)?  Also, Peter makes a good point in the comments re China’s naval capacities at this point – I am actually looking down the road, say, twenty five years from now, partly because I (like Chris) am finishing up an article for the Chicago Journal of International Law on the meaning of a ‘multipolar’ world, so the longer term is on my mind.)

Somali pirates seized a US-flagged ship carrying relief aid and 20 Americans, the New York Times reports.  It is the first time in a long time – I haven’t looked hard, but I couldn’t find any indication of a US-flagged ship being seized by pirates going back at least a decade (update – WashPost says first seizure of a crew in more than 100 years).   We’ve talked before on this blog about international responses to piracy.  I’ve suggested that in some ways it is a made-for-TV issue for the Obama administration – a chance to show multilateral leadership in a firm, security-related way.  American ship?  American crew being held hostage?  Ship carrying relief supplies?  There’s already a Security Council resolution and, for once, general agreement among the great powers that everyone favors secure seas through the region – China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, etc.  What more could anyone want?  Adorable puppies and meowing hungry kittens menaced by mean men with rocket propelled grenade launchers?  Threatening to eat them?  Of course, it is never that simple once the pirates actually have hostages.  There is a sizable multilateral task force operating in the region but, as US commanders note, those seas cover a million square miles.  Noted.  That said, however, should it really be beyond the capabilities of the world’s leading powers to come up with an effective response?  Isn’t multilateral leadership on this a responsibility of the world’s leading maritime nation, the one that has long been the guarantor of the freedom of the seas – and isn’t this also a sizable political opportunity for the Obama administration in a situation in which the great powers agree, went through the motions of international law, have serious interests at stake, share a common aim, are actually committing naval assets, but are in need of leadership? How many times will that happy confluence of multilateralism happen?  And what would it mean if, for example, China took the lead where the US did not?  Organized an effective military response – but perhaps effective because more heavy-handed, no political asylum claims entertained (when was the last time anyone not from North Korea sought political asylum in … China?) and perhaps a lot more shooting using Russian commandos, say, while the Americans watch from their unmanned surveillance vehicles, unwilling to get involved in the messiness unless able to deal with it via stand-off Predators and Hellfire missiles, while the Europeans primly quote, not Security Council resolutions authorizing action against piracy, but … ECJ decisions asserting that Security Council resolutions are not actually the last word on international peace and security?  Should the United States think that a good long term outcome?

9 Responses

  1. It’s our ship and our crew, whatever military action takes place will probably be from the United States.

    Hostage rescues are a real roll of the dice, but one can hardly imagine how the status quo can continue…

  2. Reports are coming in that the crew may have retaken the ship.

  3. China is unlikely to take the lead in this sort of operation because of the distance from China mainland and China’s extremely limited experience with forward-deployed naval assets; the Somali piracy interdiction represents the first significant example of the PLAN being able to project its naval assets across real distance. Two destroyers and a supply ship on only the third Indian Ocean deployment for the Chinese Navy in 600 years do not make for a natural lead force in an international effort.

  4. Prof. Anderson:

    I don’t mean to be snarky, and I’m not asking sarcastically. I’m genuinely curious. Given your apparent skepticism of, if not hostility to internationalism, why are you teaching a class this summer on international justice for human rights violations? Or are you the “dissenting voice” of the two, the counterpoint? As I say, just curious about how you law profs go about these things.

  5. Modern pirates must have <a href=”“>one heckuva hideout for the loot</a>.

  6. I’m teaching a class this summer?

  7. I could just be on crack. Let’s go with that. Ignore me. 😛

  8. Knowledge and Approval are two completely separate things.

  9. Response…

    These ‘pirates’ are nothing more than terrorists.  The US military needs to react in an overt manner now.  Sending ships and negioating won’t work.  The terrorists do not care what happens to them.  Focus on saving the Captain.  Our special forces can do this.

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