Friday, August 14, 2009

What's Happening On The Oceans?

When the Mediterranean Sea was, by turns, a Roman lake, then 2000 years later a British lake, pirates didn't exist. While Britain's attention was distracted by an incessant war with France, pirates holed up in North Africa wreaked havoc on shipping, inducing the neo-natal United States to fight an undeclared war with pirates and French-supported privateers operating out of what is now Algeria and Libya. From the mid-19th to the late-20th centuries, between the British and the Americans, piracy was a relatively rare phenomenon.

As the role of the navy as an expression of national power declined, however, we have seen a rise in piracy, especially in areas that are difficult to patrol, or near failed or near-failing states. Thus, the western Indian Ocean approaches to the Gulf Oil states have become good hunting for Somali-based pirates. The convoluted waterways in the many archipelagos between southeast Asia and Australia are also a haven for pirates looking for cargo ships running the straits around Singapore.

This story, which I first heard yesterday, has far more questions than answers to it - the whole boarding near Sweden is so bizarre - and finding the ship off the coast of Cape Verde only deepens the mystery. Was it rivalry between Russian mob bosses? Was the ship carrying hidden contraband (narcotics is mentioned, but since there is no evidence for anything of the sort, while certainly a possibilty, is just speculation)?

More to the point, what is happening that we are seeing a resurgence of piracy? In 1982, negotiations on the Law of the Sea Treaty - which the US has yet to ratify, although we operate under its provisions - established a new framework, far different from ones developed under the "freedom of the seas" concept developed in the 17th and 18th centuries (see here for details). While I am a firm supporter of US ratification, I have to wonder if putting in place a new international legal regime without any enforcement mechanism, and absent the world's largest naval power, was wise? With the US Navy currently overstretched and no other naval power even approaching our capacity, at what point do we have to work together, again, to rid the world of pirates?

Virtual Tin Cup

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