At least three times in the last year, the French government has acted quickly and decisively to free hostages taken by pirates aboard French vessels.
The most recent action was a qualified success - four of the five hostages were rescued unharmed, but the captain of the pirated sailing vessel was killed. He had earlier been quoted writing in his blog, "The pirates must not be allowed to destroy our dream."
This vessel, the S/V Tanit, had been escorted for much of its transit by French naval helicopters, but the helos warned the Tanit that they could not watch out for them around the clock, and the situation was particularly perilous. Nevertheless, when the Tanit was taken (on Tuesday), the French wasted no time in mounting a rescue operation (yesterday).
This compares to the US Navy, who have "monitored" the drifting lifeboat containing Captain Phillips of the MAERSK ALABAMA and a bunch of now hungry and desparate pirates. "Monitored" is apparently a pretty loose term, because when Captain Phillips managed to escape his captors, jump overboard, and attempt to swim away last night, the US Navy did nothing to assist him.
There are four pirates with rifles in the lifeboat, shadowed by a US Navy destroyer a few yards away. Was the destroyer (the USS BAINBRIDGE) not looking when the Captain jumped in the water? Why did they not vaporize the pirates (perhaps using the miniguns or 25mm chain guns they have on the rails for this purpose, or perhaps more precise sniper fire) when the pirates fired on the Captain in the water to compel his return to the lifeboat?
Of course I was not there and don't know exactly what happened, but it really looks like the Navy wasn't paying close attention to the situation. As unbelieveable as this sounds, it wouldn't surprise me. Perhaps more likely, someone on the destroyer watched the whole evolution, but had no authority to take any action to help Captain Phillips without routing a chit through his department head to the CO, who would have then sent a message to the Commodore, who would then convene a VTC with NAVCENT, who would have to coordinate with CENTCOM, who would have to get a JAG review from the Joint Staff and OSD, before doing anything to help out the hostage swimming for his life.
Compare this situation to the French, who have consistently launched a coordinated operation to rescue their people within hours, every time French citizens have been taken.
Mackubin Thomas Owens at the Naval War College makes a compelling case, based on traditional international law, that we are screwing the pooch yet again:
We need to return to an important distinction first made by the Romans and subsequently incorporated into international law by way of medieval and early modern European jurisprudence, e.g. Grotius and Vattel. The Romans distinguished between bellum, war against legitimus hostis, a legitimate enemy, and guerra, war against latrunculi — pirates, robbers, brigands, and outlaws — "the common enemies of mankind."
The former, bellum, became the standard for interstate conflict, and it is here that the Geneva Conventions and other legal protections were meant to apply. They do not apply to the latter, guerra — indeed, punishment for latrunculi traditionally has been summary execution. Until recently, no international code has extended legal protection to pirates.
So first, we should revive that distinction. When they are caught, they should be hanged. Second, I'm not the first to suggest that we should use force to wipe out the pirate lairs. Under the old understanding of international law, a sovereign state has the right to strike the territory of another if that state is not able to curtail the activities of latrunculi.
Most of these principles are still extant in international law, although the current incarnation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is a mess. This mess is, in part, due to the failure of the drafters of UNCLOS III to take the threat of piracy seriously. Another big part of the problem is they were a bunch of bureaucrats and sea lawyers with a serious progressive agenda and a bad case of the "be a victim" mentality.
Piracy is not a minor or isolated problem in 2009. It is not confined to Somalia and it's getting worse in a lot of places. Check out this excellent map showing global pirate attacks so far in 2009 alone. You can drill down and get actual incident reports from the individual data points. Want more? Download this Google Earth overlay to get aimpoints for nearly all the pirate bases and infrastructure in Somalia.
The stubborn determination of many among us to be victims, and make victims of the rest of us, baffles me. There are many in the international naval and maritime community who overtly state its easier to pay ransom than to defend yourself, because "you might hurt the ship or some of the other crew".
The piracy problem isn't really that hard to solve. But it's nearly impossible without a spine.