Leon Fink: Oceanic Piracy–A War without Nations

In today’s guest post, Leon Fink, author of Sweatshops at Sea: Merchant Seamen in the World’s First Globalized Industry, from 1812 to the Present, reflects on the recent Somali pirate attack on a group of Americans on a private yacht.  With piracy on the rise off the Somali coast, the relationship between commerce, globalization, power, and security becomes problematic.  Fink looks at all the factors that surround this issue that seems to have no end or peaceful remedy in sight.-Alex

The February 22 murder of four American retirees, enjoying a world cruise on their private yacht called the Quest, at the hands of Somali pirates again highlights a long-simmering international issue that seems to have no solution.  This time the four American victims were not as lucky as those involved in the April 2009 seizure of the U.S.-flagged container ship, the Maersk Alabama, that ended with the pirates being literally blown away by an American destroyer ship detailed to protect commercial traffic in Indian Ocean corridors, with no casualties suffered among the hostages. (The latter was the first reported pirate seizure of an American ship since the early nineteenth century.) But “law enforcement” on the scene is not always helpful. In the case of the Quest, early reports suggest that the intervention of an FBI rescue team may have inadvertently triggered a panic among the hostage-takers that led to the victims’ deaths.

Despite efforts to combat it—and despite the relative rareness of Americans getting caught up in such events–Somali piracy is a growing phenomenon, or what one might more plainly call a business. As documented in a Feb. 3, 2011 report in The Economist, pirates have captured some 1600 seamen since 2008 and currently hold 33 vessels and nearly 800 hostages.  Left to its own logic, the high seas hijackings—once limited to Suez Canal-oriented traffic in the Gulf of Aden but now extending far out into the Indian Ocean—involve little violence beyond the initial seizure of commercial prey. What the pirates want—and usually get, by towing their cargo back to Somali safe waters, where hostages are held for an average 200 days in relative comfort—are the multi-million dollar ransoms they can count on from shipping companies.

To be sure, if the major world powers regularly sustained losses of their own citizens as well as to their national prestige, it is likely that there would be a more sustained military effort to confront the pirates—i.e., more cases like that of the Maersk Alabama and a surer sense of how to prevent cases like that of the Quest.  Thankfully for the pirates, however, that is not the normal situation. Just as the pirates themselves represent a ghostly enterprise from an effectively “broken” state, their targets in international shipping corridors are equally unconnected, at least directly, to world superpowers.

For the most part, world shipping today is the prototype for “globalization,” the reign of private marketplace competition over any other national or political consideration. In keeping with a pattern of deregulation that has steadily grown since World War II, shipowners (commonly centered in the richer, western countries and Japan) have evaded the labor and tax laws of their home states by registering their vessels with governmental weaklings like Panama, Liberia, and the Marshall Islands as so-called “flags of convenience.” Crucially, in sidestepping domestic legislation, shippers have also availed themselves of a worldwide labor market, brimming with desperate, unemployed laborers eager for jobs under virtually any available terms.

So it is that the largest supplier of today’s merchant mariners—and the pirates’ hostage list–is the Philippines, followed by Russia, Ukraine, China, and India. Somalia itself offers an eager maritime labor force, although, like so much else in the failed state, it has little infrastructure by which to train and properly certify its nationals for “legitimate” crewing opportunities. Thus in a characteristic act of present-day brigandage, the year 2011 began with the January 1 seizure of a Greek-operated, Algerian-flagged vessel with a crew of 27 (mainly Algerian and Ukrainian). The ship and crew—quickly reported to be berthed off the Somali coast–though safe and unharmed, still await a negotiated return to their homes.

Despite much international hand-wringing and a resort to various technological “fixes” to better defend and/or shield engine rooms from enemy capture, there is, so far, little concerted move to counteract the current age of piracy. No state or multi-national organization wants to entangle itself in Somalia proper, while bombardment of the corsairs’ hideouts, of course, risks the lives of hostages. And, as The Economist documents, “too many people like things as they are.” The pirates are happy, marine insurers are thriving, and dispatched navies can point to some use other than war to justify their existence. Even shipowners, forced to pay huge insurance premiums, simply pass on the cost, which is ultimately borne by anonymous and powerless consumers. Only the merchant seafarers themselves—and occasional pleasure yachtsmen—bear the brunt of the risks and costs involved.

In the midst of revolutionary upheaval and regime changes in the Mid-East, the ongoing Somali piracy reminds us that much of the world’s commerce, and indeed much of the world’s productive work, takes place outside the glare of nation-states, be they democratic or tyrannical. In this no man’s land, there is no effective government balancing opportunity in the marketplace with rules and standards that protect the lives and essential welfare of the players themselves. Moreover, rather than rely on the occasional national lawman sailing in to try to take out the bad guys, we had better come up with a more comprehensive, multilateral system of justice upon the waves as well as the land.

Leon Fink is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is author of Sweatshops at Sea: Merchant Seamen in the World’s First Globalized Industry, from 1812 to the Present and The Maya of Morganton: Work and Community in the Nuevo New South.