A dangerous new development has occurred in the campaign against Somali pirates hijacking vessels for ransom in the Indian Ocean.
When seven of them sought to seize a UAE-owned cargo ship this week, they were driven off by gunfire from private security guards aboard. When a Spanish warship in the area caught up with the pirates, it was found that one was dead of gunshot wounds.
The six survivors were arrested and their vessel was sunk. It would, however, be entirely wrong to celebrate this particular victory over the thieves. This is the first time that private security guards have slain an attacker. The International Maritime Bureau is not alone in being deeply concerned at this development because it threatens an escalation in the violence that the criminals are prepared to use to capture a vessel.
Rocket-propelled grenades and heavy-caliber machine guns have already being fired at vessels that refuse to stop. If the pirates believe that is a risk that an attempt to board a vessel will be resisted, they will seek to shoot up a ship first, perhaps from one attacking vessel, while it is boarded from the other side by another. And if private security guards fall into their hands, they can perhaps expect no mercy.
Any escalation in this conflict is to be deplored and this latest broadening is heavy with risk. Nevertheless those merchant vessel operators that have chosen to hire guards cannot be blamed entirely. The reality is that despite dozens of warships from around the world patrolling the region, it is simply too vast, even with their advanced surveillance equipment, for them to guard every commercial vessel, let alone fishing boats, pleasure yachts and coastal trading dhows. The convoy system that has been introduced only works effectively for vessels traveling to and from East African ports. Elsewhere owners are reluctant to incur the considerable expense of having their vessels wait for days until a sufficiently large group of vessels has formed up to be convoyed by international escorts.
The tactics, therefore, need to change in two key ways. First, rather than scattering naval assets around the Indian Ocean, they should be brought together to blockade the Somali coast. This would interdict the pirates mother ships from moving to and from their homeports. Any suspicious vessels leaving Somalia could be shadowed to ensure their bona fides as fishermen.
It could also provide a cordon that could stop any seized vessels from being taken into harbors to be ransomed.
The second step is for the UNs International Criminal Court in The Hague to establish a tribunal to try arrested suspects. Piracy on the high seas is a serious crime. Those who carry it out should be prosecuted and punished. Convicted pirates could be imprisoned in the state whose vessel they tried to attack or if they are caught before an assault, in agreed third countries.
At all times, however, it is essential that this is a formal and organized international process. Bringing in hired guns, as the Blackwater massacre in Baghdads Nisoor Square demonstrated, is not the answer.