On one side are the eight navies, the world’s largest shipping companies, the rich Gulf states that need to get their oil to market, and the great powers, whose commerce depends heavily on the shipping lanes around the Horn of Africa.
On the other side are a few thousand Somali pirates in small boats with light weapons. So why are the pirates winning?
Not only are they winning, but the forces of law and order are almost completely paralysed. The pirates have seized dozen of ships, extracting ransoms that total about $30 million this year alone.
Fourteen ships, including a Saudi Arabian super-tanker carrying two million barrels of oil, are still anchored off the Somali coast awaiting ransom. Yet with the honourable exception of the Indians and the French, nobody has used force against the pirates of the Horn.
The Danish navy arrested ten of them in September, but turned them loose again because the government believed that it did not have jurisdiction to prosecute them.
The British Foreign Office has advised the Royal Navy not to detain pirates of certain nationalities (including Somali) as they might claim asylum in Britain under human rights laws. As the boldness of the pirate attacks increases, the international response is to retreat.
Major shipping companies that transport oil out of the Gulf have ordered their tankers to stop using the Suez Canal route, which takes them past the northern Somali coast.
Instead, they are going all the way around southern Africa, adding two weeks to the voyage at a cost of $20,000-30,000 a day.
What to do? Most pundits declare that this problem cannot be solved at sea. Instead, it will only end when order has been restored in Somalia, the pirates’s base.
Since Somalia is currently divided between three different governments, only one of which (Somaliland) exercises even a modest degree of control over its territory, that seems a tall order.
The last major international attempt to take Somalia out of the hands of the warlords and their militias was in 1992-93. It ended with the hasty retreat of American troops from the country, followed by all the United Nations forces as well.
If a call for volunteers to repeat that effort were to be sent out to UN member states today, an epidemic of diplomatic deafness would sweep the world.
If we must wait for a central government with real authority to take charge in Somalia before the pirate threat in the seas around the Horn of Africa is brought under control, that happy event is unlikely to arrive before the 2020s.
Why not solve the problem at sea, where clan militias and suicide bombers are not a problem? Why not just capture or kill enough of the pirates to persuade the others to choose a different career?
Do not believe the nonsense about how it’s too big an ocean area to monitor and control effectively. This is one of the tasks that great-power navies are designed to perform, and they have the right equipment to do it: satellite surveillance, maritime patrol aircraft, and warships with powerful radars and lethal weapons.
Moreover, the navies are usually looking for work, since there is not that much call for their services in peacetime.
The problem is not the reluctance or incompetence of the navies. It is the whole body of international law and human rights legislation that has emerged in recent decades, which has made the traditional remedies for piracy very hard to apply.
The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, for example, requires a warship to send a boarding party led by an officer onto any suspected pirate vessel to confirm its criminal intent. Until that has been done, the warship may not open fire.
The colloquial term for the members of any such boarding party is “hostages”.
Back in the early 18th century, when the pirates of the Caribbean -- the REAL pirates of the Caribbean, not Johnny Depp and Keith Richards -- were finally being eliminated by the navies of the major European powers, there was no such foolishness. Pirates were defined as “enemies of all mankind,” and there was a right of “universal jurisdiction” against them.
Any country could arrest pirates from any other country or countries and try them for their crimes. If they were captured in battle, they were even liable to summary execution. And while it is not the 18th century any more, a UN Security Council resolution decreeing universal jurisdiction would certainly transform the situation.
Suppose that such a declaration were made, and it was then announced that any non-military vessels carrying armed men within 500 kilometres (300 miles) of the Somali coast would be subject to arrest. If they did not submit when challenged, they would be sunk without further discussion.
Do that a couple of times (as the Indian warship INS Tabar did last week), and the pirate threat drops away very fast. Has the UN got the spine to declare those rules for the Gulf of Aden and the oceans bordering East Africa?
Perhaps. It has just given the Indian navy the right of “hot pursuit” of suspected pirate vessels into Somali territorial waters, but it needs to go a good deal further. This thing can be stopped, with very little loss of life, if we just change the rules of engagement.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.