The word piracy commonly brings to mind men with peg legs, funny accents, and parrots on their shoulders. However, William Langewiesche's book The Outlaw Sea underlines the fact that piracy is still a way of life for many people even today. The book demonstrates that international waters are just as rife with danger and under-regulated as they were many centuries ago, despite the efforts of numerous nations and international agencies to bring pirates to justice. Piracy might seem to be used purely for economic reasons on its surface but it can also be deployed to fuel and support terrorism. Langewiesche's 2004 book is a clarion cry about the need to do something to address the problem before more lives are lost. However, there is little evidence that the ten years since the book was published have brought forth substantial improvements.
One problem with dealing with the problem of piracy is the fact that its victims are often poor and from Third World nations with little power. Although the developed world is dependent upon the fruits of piracy, it bears little risk. For First World customers and shipping companies because the ships and cargoes are insured, the damage inflicted by piracy is often minimal. Of course, that is not always true of the crew: "The ships are steel behemoths, slow, enormously efficient and magnificent, if only for their mass and functionality. They are crewed from the pools of the poor - several million sailors of varying quality ... who bid down for the jobs in a global market and are mixed together without reference to such petty conventions as language and nationality….The ships themselves…are possibly the most independent objects on earth…without allegiances of any kind" (Langewiesche 2004: 4). This makes the ships very difficult to protect from a legal standpoint and the ships' crews have virtually no incentive to do so on their own initiatives. "The payment of low wages…can result in the employment of less well trained and more unreliable seafarers with no allegiance to neither their employer nor the ship-owner…low wages paid to seafarers, port officials, and dock workers can also offer an incentive for corrupt or desperate mariners or port personnel to accept payments from criminal organisations in exchange for information about a vessel" (The roots of piracy in Southeast Asia, 2007, APSNet). Rather than the underpaid crew protecting the ship, it may even act as an aid to pirates.
The fertile nature of the high seas for criminality has been seen most recently in Somalia, a nation torn apart by civil war that has recently become a 'hot spot' for piracy. Pirates have spared no one in their rapacity, including UN workers carrying food to the nation's victims of its civil war. "Piracy has existed in Somalia's coastal waters since the country plunged into civil war 15 years ago - the anarchy on land has spread to the sea" (Barise 2005). Although the ostensible reason for the piracy is economic, many believe that economic motives may also be at play. "The question of whether these hijackings are motivated by purely economic reasons, or whether politics is also involved, is now being investigated by the Kenyan and the transitional Somali governments." (Barise 2005). Regardless, with a going rate of "$500,000 for one ship, its cargo and crew" it is difficult to conceive of any time soon in which traveling to the nation (whose legitimate government remains in a state of flux) will be safe (Barise 2005). Economic and political motives may affect pirates to varying degrees, but the fusion of the two combined with government instability has created a toxic combination fertile for pirates, according to most analysts.
In Southeast Asia, piracy seems more purely economic in its motivation although the consequences are no less deadly for its victims. "The impoverishment of fishers due to declining catches and rivalry among fishers can be a factor in pushing fishermen towards supplementing their meager incomes by conducting pirate attacks. Secondly, due to increased competition for fish stocks and the division of the sea into maritime zones under national jurisdiction, fishers -- especially those fishing illegally in foreign waters -- have in some areas become easy prey for pirates" (The roots of piracy in Southeast Asia, 2007, APSNet). Some of the perpetrators are rogue members of the military, navy, or marine police. This further underlines the difficulty of enforcement although when regulation is in place since nearby national leaders are themselves active or complicit in the actions of pirates.
Langewiesche might add that even in relatively stable areas, piracy and exploitation of the seas is still a constant threat. No matter how stable the surrounding government, the problem of regulation of international waters remains an open legal question. The seas have historically been out of the grasp of national and even international legal systems because of the murky area of jurisdiction. Despite highly public incidents such as smuggling and oil spills national government officials "continued to see the ocean in tidy governmental terms as a place subject to officiating, where navies projected national power….it was a view of the world still possible at the end of the twentieth century -- an illusion of progress and community that was demolished twenty-one months later, with the attacks of September 11th" (Langewiesche 2004: 37). Only recently has there been a 'wake-up call' about the problem of maritime regulation and Langewiesche believes this awakening has not yet generated sufficient legal clout to truly make a difference. Legal regulations "of an ad hoc mix of rules and regulations enacted and enforced by three different regulatory authorities" (classification societies, flag states, and costal states) can effectively mean that no regulations are enforced at all (The roots of piracy in Southeast Asia, 2007, APSNet).
Furthermore, despite the renewed resolve to guard against piracy, the terrorists that perpetrated 9/11 have made use of piracy themselves to further their objectives: Osama bin Laden owned freighters for a variety of reasons, including making money by transporting legitimate cargo like sesame seeds as well as delivering explosives (Langewiesche 39). The sea is thus not only a place where terrorism can occur but also provides covert (and not-so-covert) means for terrorists to fund their activities.
Langewiesche profiles a number of highly-publicized terrorist incidents and uses them as case studies for the challenges of regulating piracy. For example, in the case of the Alondra Rainbow, although the pirates were finally brought to trial in Mumbai the process was "excruciatingly slow" and Langewiesche notes that even though the pirates were convicted they were largely "insignificant players on a very large sea -- sailors who got stuck holding the loot long after the bigger players had covered their tracks" (Langewiesche 83). The case was so lopsided there were no defense witnesses so the victory of the prosecution should hardly seem surprising but it still is significant in that it was the first case in history to "use international law and specifically the Law of the Sea to claim 'universal jurisdiction' for an act of piracy having nothing to do with the prosecuting country" (Langewiesche76).
Despite the success of this case, Langewiesche regards the idea of governable seas as a fiction. The United States has only begun to act to secure the oceans against piracy by creating stricter standards for ships coming to America and seeking coalitions with other entities to improve international law and agreements that allow for the prosecution of pirates. And institutional challenges still remain in terms of U.S. government authority. For example, the U.S. Coast Guard, one of the first lines of defense, is a relatively weak and under-funded body, regarded as a kind of a 'poor stepchild' of the other branches of government.
Langewiesche's pessimism in 2004 seems warranted by data…