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Piracy: We Saved a Man, but Solved Nothing

April 14th, 2009

French commandos rescuing hostages last week.

Obviously everyone is happy to have rescued the captain and killed the bad guys. Our friends at SWJ have a complete news round-up here and Victor Davis Hanson provides colorful commentary here. But for our purposes, we note that it was only a matter of time before the discussion shifted to the “rights” of the pirates. Our human rights activists, international lawyers and post-imperialists seem to have a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea of war — or, indeed of state action — other than criminal proceedings with maximal procedural and individual rights for the accused. They have lived very sheltered lives and simply do not grok the world that is.

The Royal Navy has been instructed not to take prisoners for fear of asylum claims (and this most certainly does not mean they’ve been ordered to just kill them instead). As the Foreign Office spokesman put it: “There are issues about human rights and what might happen in these circumstances. The main thing is to ensure any incident is resolved peacefully. Here in the States, Human Rights Watch has jumped into the fray, as the AP reported yesterday:

Jo Becker, a D.C.-based advocate for Human Rights Watch, said if the pirate suspect is in fact 16 or 17 years old, “he would certainly be entitled to protections under international law that allow for lower culpability of juveniles involved in crimes.”

Becker says international law recognizes that people under 18 are “less developed, less mature, and more easily manipulated by adults.”

Ideally, Becker said, an underage suspect would be tried in a juvenile court, with special protections given his age. “He would need to have access to family members. Throughout the whole process, there needs to be a special view to his rehabilitation,” she added.

Reported piracy incidents from the International Maritime Bureau. Red are actual attacks; yellow are attempts.

Reported piracy incidents from the International Maritime Bureau. Red are actual attacks; yellow are attempts.

In reality, there is no neat line from crime to war. The West has spent the better part of a century blurring the line and wrecking the old Westphalian rules of sovereignty. The motives were noble. The results are a mess. The Somali pirate situation is not new. Gerald Ford faced a similar incident. Jimmy Carter had Tehran. Ronald Reagan had the Beirut hostages. Bill Clinton had to bargain the last American out of his Mogadishu disaster. George W. Bush had the FARC hostages. At this point, deciding if the Taliban is a political movement with drug connections or a set of drug enforcers with a vague religious-political mission is a real good question.

The intersections of individual rights versus necessities of state in wartime, and of asserted post-colonial sovereignty claims and armed actors who don’t play by Westphalia, is going to be one of the enduring national security dilemmas of the next decade. After all, the Somali pirates claim they are just a coast guard. This is not really asymmetric warfare. This is a blatant assertion that the world does not have to play by the norms of 1945-91. Transnational actors both within and outside the developed world are rewriting the rules and we are all living in the chaos. Can the International Red Cross just declare what the rules of war are in the absence of governmental consent? Can territory be both sovereign if entered by foreigners and not the responsibility of the nominal government when bad things happen?

We are living in “interesting times.”

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