The War on Somali Piracy

| May 2012
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According to a recent BBC report, the EU has launched an attack on Somali “pirate bases.” It strikes me how little the international community’s response to piracy has been generally problematised. If anything, the biggest criticism of it has been that it has not been robust enough. There are (at least) three major problems with the response.

First, it has been alleged that the Somali pirates are difficult to distinguish from the local fisherman and that this attack led to the boats of local fishermen being destroyed. To the extent that these attacks harm morally innocent fishermen by depriving them of their means of making a living, they seem to be very problematic.

Second, even if the pirates were in fact the only ones harmed, it is not clear that the pirates are morally liable to attack. It has been reported that Somali piracy originally arose in response to (1) “pirate fishing”—illegal fishing by foreign trawlers—and (2) the dumping of toxic waste off the coast of Somalia. Many Somali pirates may now be more opportunistic than defensive, but there are clearly few other alternatives for Somalis to meet their basic needs. And this is arguably the case in large part due to the foreign policies of certain Western states. So, although some pirates might not act permissibly, it seems that some may do—or at least have done so in the past—and others may be at least partially excused.

Third, as this attack further shows, the response to the pirates has been largely militarised. It has been widely reported that, rather than launching various naval missions, it would probably be cheaper to assist the citizens of the coastal towns of Somalia and to help them meet their basic needs so that piracy is no longer a financially attractive option. But more than financial costs, if we are to take seriously the Just War condition of last resort, surely we should be doing much more to seek alternative, peaceful ways of ensuring that piracy does not arise.

Overall, I think that the opprobrium towards the Somali pirates has been disconcerting. Some pirates have clearly carried out some grave and morally atrocious acts. Nothing that I am saying here is meant to deny this. But we also need to question our own framing of piracy and how this has been used in generating the responses to this phenomenon. It seems worrisome that we continue to come up with bad guys, with almost anything being deemed acceptable to stop them.


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