Squashing the Skull and Bones: Reforming the International Anti-Piracy Regime

By Hopper, Anna | Harvard International Review, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Squashing the Skull and Bones: Reforming the International Anti-Piracy Regime


Hopper, Anna, Harvard International Review


Blackbeard and Bluebeard are names that evoke an era long since passed. Their successors, however, continue to terrorize the seas today. Rather than disappearing, piracy has actually become more advanced and dangerous over the past several centuries. Piracy currently poses a direct threat to trading ships, which carry about 90 percent of the world's cargo, according to the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

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Though past studies seem to demonstrate a decline in piracy beginning in 2004, 2007 data show a possible turnaround. The International Maritime Bureau (IMB), which runs the world's only comprehensive piracy-reporting center, received 198 reports of successful or attempted pirate attacks in the first three quarters of 2007, constituting a 14 percent increase from the same period in 2006. The IMB estimates that thousands of pirate attacks go unreported, making piracy a much more serious issue than it may appear.

Some nations that find themselves plagued by piracy, such as those in Southeast Asia, are attempting to respond to this problem. Other nations, such as the United States, which do not face the direct threat of piracy themselves, have attempted to provide military aid. However, these actions have been limited in scope because they are the responses of individual nations. Though the IMO is supposed to enforce laws on the high seas, it has been slow to develop an effective piracy policy. In light of the fact that piracy remains an on-going threat to international shipping companies and local fishermen around the world, the international community and the United Nations must increase their collective response. This response should include a redefinition of piracy by the UN, increased high-seas patrols by multinational naval forces, and more regional cooperation in high-risk areas.

Hazardous Zones

In order to combat piracy, the international community must first identify the riskiest areas. Piracy often occurs in places where there is a lack of law enforcement on the seas, where there is excessive poverty, and where there is resentment of commercially-successful vessels. The oceans off of Somalia in East Africa and Nigeria in West Africa fulfill these three criteria and are some of the most volatile and dangerous seas in the world, according to the IMB. The government of Somalia is currently a transitional body installed by the United Nations and is still fighting for control of the country. Thus, it lacks the authority to effectively combat piracy. As a result, piracy in the region has escalated tremendously in the past year, especially since many boats must sail near Somalia as they exit the Red Sea. In October 2007, pirates hijacked the Japanese owned, Panamanian-flagged Golden Nori off of the coast of Somalia and held the crew hostage until receiving a ransom. Though nations including the United States and France have sent patrol ships to the region, there are not enough ships to cover the entire area.

Still, the presence of US patrol ships has created marginal gains. The US Navy was able to come to the aid of a North Korean-flagged ship that was attacked by pirates in November 2007--an event with the potential to provide a foundation for better relations between the two countries. Despite this successful attempt to ward off pirates in East African seas, thousands of pirates continue to terrorize the region, and the West African coasts are almost as treacherous.

Historically, Southeast Asia has been a hotspot for pirate activity. This is particularly true in the waters around the Malacca Straits, through which about one-third of world trade and about half of world oil supplies pass. However, the region has recently witnessed a decrease in its share of pirate activity. The 2006 creation of the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) may be partially responsible for the decline in both the number and the seriousness of attacks in the region.

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