While bureaucrats at the United Nations continue to wring their hands and whine that arming merchant ships in order to defend their crew and cargo from well-armed Somali pirates infesting the waters off the Horn of Africa will only lead to more violence, at least some US-owned ships are arming their crews and actually employing force to repel the increasingly violent maritime invaders. In the latest episode that has been made known publicly, the Maersk Alabama, which was actually boarded and overtaken by pirates earlier this year (until US Navy SEALS mounted a successful counter-operation), employed both lethal and non-lethal force in thwarting a second capture.
Despite the fact that pirate attacks off the Somali coast have skyrocketed since mid-2008, U.N. bureaucrats and even some U.S. officials maintain that arming ships is not a good idea because it may lead to an “arms race” with Somali pirates. This argument ignores the fact that these modern-day buccaneers already have access to late-model, powerful arms.
Unlike UN bureaucrats sitting in their offices overlooking New York’s East River, US companies shipping valuable cargo — especially Mideast oil — pay a heavy price for doing nothing and simply relying on naval vessels to protect them, or to meet ransom demands. Somali pirate coffers swell — as do those of the arms dealers and countries from which they purchase their arms — as US and other shipping companies have to spend millions for kidnap and ransom insurance.
Fortunately, many US ship-owning and transport companies are exhibiting a resolve not often seen in this day and age, and are taking the bull by the horns. They are doing what should have been done as soon as this problem of Somali pirating first manifested itself nearly two decades ago; and that is, arming their crews and training them to use those arms to repel pirate attacks. Even the US Coast Guard has indicated support for such steps.
Opponents of arming merchant ships fail to recognize that, just as police cannot be expected to protect every citizen from becoming the victim of a criminal act, warships of the United States Navy, and the navies of other countries with merchant ships plying the dangerous waters in the region, cannot be expected to be everywhere they are needed all the time. Sixteen countries, including the US, already have deployed naval ships to the region, but it is impossible to patrol 1.1 million square miles with complete effectiveness. And, as important as each US-flag merchant ship is, there are priorities elsewhere in the world that our Navy must take into account in determing what resources it can deploy to this area.
Hopefully, the example set by the Maersk Alabama, will cause other countries with a stake in defeating these violent pirate elements to grow some backbone (the UN is beyond hope). More importantly, hopefully we will see the US government become more fully engaged in support of such efforts, including bringing our still-considerable diplomatic power to bear in ensuring that ports at which US merchant ships dock to take on or off load cargo or personnel, are not punished or detained simply because they have defensive firearms locked up on board to be used to defend themselves against pirate attacks.