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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 4/10/09

Of Pirates and Predators: Oh what a tangled web

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The news of late has tracked the events of Somali "pirates" capturing a "U.S." ship carrying food aid to Kenya. The ship in question is the Maersk Alabama. Pirates Let us start with the central issue of human rights - the "pirates." If you listen to (or read) the news, then this all seems pretty straight forward. There are pirates off the coast of Somalia hijacking vessels and returning them to their owners when a ransom is paid. There was an effort to link the pirates to al Qaeda, but that failed. However, the reference still comes up from time to time. There is no known connection between the Somali pirates and any terrorist organization. One has to ask "When is a pirate a pirate?" In the short view, we have roving bands of folks taking ships and crews hostage for ransom. Until relatively recently, companies and governments have paid up; the ships and crews have been released; and trade goes on. In other words, paying off the pirates was treated as the "cost of doing business." Now, after almost a year (in the U.S.) of manufactured outrage regarding the pirates (and coming to a semi-head with the capture of the Maersk Alabama) we have the U.S. sending war ships and the FBI to resolve the issue. It is highly likely that an international effort will soon be proposed to deal much more harshly and swiftly with pirates. If one takes a slightly longer view, one runs into a much thornier issue regarding the Somali pirates. Namely, why they became pirates. The evolution of the Somali pirate starts with multinational fishing fleets engaging in uncontrolled "poaching" off the coast of Somalia. See, the people were fisherman, and the trawling fleets removed their livelihood - and destroyed a number of boats. This happened with no action from the "government" of Somalia, nor with intervention from an national or international body. So there sat the fisherman with no fish and no way to survive.
Piracy in Somalia began because traditional coastal fishing became difficult after foreign fishing trawlers depleted local fish stocks. Desperate fishermen started attacking trawlers until the trawler crews fought back with heavy weapons, leading the local fishermen to turn to other types of commercial vessels. The pirates prefer to call themselves the Somali "coast guard," noting that, prior to the recent spate of hijackings, they organized themselves to defend their communities from overfishing and, according to several accounts, to protect Somalia's coastline from toxic dumping by foreign vessels. ~ Somali Piracy and the International Response
Hmm .. "pirates." In an article from the Guardian, a Somali pirate - Asad Abdulahi - offers a different perspective from the spin:
We don't see the hijacking as a criminal act but as a road tax because we have no central government to control our sea. With foreign warships now on patrol we have difficulties.
The Abdulahi interview also shows the escalation of the weapons of piracy. As ships and military vessels use increasing fire power, so too do the types of weapons that "pirates" employ. This is of course not unexpected - both history and research show that this escalation is inevitable. Given the situation leading up to the career change from fisherman to pirates, perhaps "pirates" is a misleading label. After brainstorming with my life partner trying to come up with a more accurate label, we finally settled on "repirates." The Somali fishermen were robbed of their livelihood (it was "pirated"). They in turn shifted to a tax or duty approach to make up for what they had lost. Of course, they had (and have) no governmental sanction for such "collections," so they are acting illegally. But they are not "pirates" but REPIRATES. Now this term leads to some interesting relationships. If one pronounces it rē '- pirates, then they are pirates stealing back from pirates. If one pronounces the word as rĕ - pĭ-rĕ ts' then it sounds more like reparations. Either way the concepts more closely fit the situation than "pirates." As a side note, this discussion of modern sea "piracy" calls into question the supposed history of piracy (or at least it does for me). A U.S. Ship? Now what about the ship that is generating so much attention - the Maersk Alabama? It is oh so difficult to determine the actual nationality of a ship these days. First, Maersk is a multinational corporation having operations in 130 countries. It was established in 1904 by A.P. Moller (and his father), and now has more than 550 container ships (Maersk site). The Maersk Alabama may be out of the Maersk operations in Norfolk, Virginia. So, one could argue that it is a "U.S." ship - or at least on its current mission it is. This is where determining national ownership issues becomes much more complicated. The standard practice in international shipping is a practice called "flags of convenience" (FOC). In essence, FOC's are an "open registry" practice that allows captains (or ship owners) to fly whatever nation's flag which will be most beneficial to them for the purposes of their mission. Generally, this "benefit" relates to regulations, ship conditions, crew wages etc. Because of the abusive use of flags of convenience, the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) has launched an campaign against the use of FOCs.
For 50 years the ITF, through its affiliated seafarers' and dockers' unions, has been waging a vigorous campaign against shipowners who abandon the flag of their own country in search of the cheapest possible crews and the lowest possible training and safety standards for their ships.
So FOCs allow shipowners to hire the cheapest labor they can find, with questionable training and protections. I may be wrong, but it seems that pirates of old used "flags of convenience" as well. The stories go that one way they would get close to ships they wanted to "pirate" was to fly the flag of the ship of that nation. Interesting how the commercialization of the concept is an acceptable way to exploit workers and regulations for economic advantage. So, perhaps for this particular trip, in this particular location, the Maersk Alabama is being considered a "U.S." vessel. Interestingly, flags of convenience also seem to be used for ships contracted by the military - including Maersk line ships. The Maersk facility out of Norfolk, Virginia is one of the primary shipping contractors to the U.S. Department of Defense according to Summing Up Perhaps the proper contextual headlines regarding the Maersk Alabama situation should read: "Somalian Repirates seize Dutch owned Maersk ship flying under the flag of convenience of the United States."
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Rowan Wolf is an activist and sociologist living in Oregon. She is the founder and principle author of Uncommon Thought Journal, and Editor in Chief of Cyrano's Journal Today.

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