Exit Strategies

A Pirate's Death for Thee


With the surge in piracy off the Horn of Africa over the past decade, some old maritime conventions have gained new relevance. The navies of NATO, Russia, China, India and other nations have been patrolling the region in response to the upswing in attacks from seaborne Somali raiders. While the pirates have been killed in the course of combat missions, naval forces have been confronted with another problem: how should they be processed if captured? They are occasionally tried in the courts of rescuing countries, but generally modern international law fails to give a satisfactory answer.

In tackling the pirates, the governments of EU-NATO countries show themselves enforcers of the human rights regime rather than guardians of their peoples’ safety and interests. As in so many other instances, the UK leads the way into the Brave New World. Britain’s Royal Navy avoids taking pirates into custody, because to do so will trigger asylum claims, which the UK government is bound to honor under its own laws. Her Majesty’s ships have also been providing pirate gangs food and water. If Somali bandits can’t enjoy the largesse of the welfare state in Britain itself, at least they can re-stock in between hijackings with some generous humanitarian aid.

But the pirate’s life isn’t just rum and wenches (or in the Somali case, khat, hashish and child brides). The Russians seem to have responded to the raids in a radically different manner. Last month, the tanker Moscow University was seized by a group of hijackers. The crew was quick and resourceful enough to shut down the engines and gather in a compartment of the ship locked off from the pirates. The men then established radio contact with multinational coalition forces and the Russian destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov. A day later, Russian marine commandos fast-roping from helicopters retook the ship in a well-planned and executed assault. One pirate was killed, the rest captured, and the crew of 23 was freed unharmed.

Other navies have carried out similar operations to rescue their citizens- but what the Russian force did next would never have entered the imaginations of postmodern US-EU policymakers. After inspecting the captured vessel, the commanding officer of the Marshal Shaposhnikov then had ten pirates put aboard another small boat and set adrift without supplies or navigation. This made the news headlines, and a short time after defense ministry sources in Moscow reported that the pirates in all likelihood died at sea, though without explaining how. The video below, shot by Russian marines in the Indian Ocean, might shed some light on the pirates’ fate:

There are a few interesting features to the story (if this video is indeed a genuine- though incomplete- record of the rescue’s aftermath, as it does seem to be).

- The man lying wounded on the ground is not a Somali; rather, he looks to be from Pakistan (1:15). Arabs are briefly mentioned over the radio, though it is not clear in what context (2:05).

- A number of the other detainees seem to be Pakistanis, and they raise their hands when a Russian marine calls out the country, after being told to “bring up the Pakistanis” by a comrade (3:25).

- At (5:00) the sapper is congratulated on a job well done (in exceedingly informal language) after the boat’s detonation. This could have been an empty pirate craft, but blowing it into the air would seem a waste of time, film and explosives. At the very closing of the video one of the ship’s crew remarks, “That’s how it needs to be done.”

The clip’s thrust leads one to believe that Moscow ordered the pirates summarily executed. Yet this was not an extrajudicial killing; in accordance with centuries of maritime law, the action has a firm foundation in precedent. The Marshal Shaposhnikov’s captain and the Russian leadership (for an order like this would necessarily have come from the Kremlin) were within their rights to send the pirates sky-high. The British New Law Dictionary of 1762 states succinctly that pirates are subject to summary execution upon capture:

A Piracy attempted on the Ocean, if the Pirates are overcome, the Takers may immediately inflict a Punishment by hanging them up at the Main-yard End; though this is understood where no legal judgment may be obtained; And hence it is, that if a Ship shall be on a Voyage to any Part of America, or the Plantations there, or a Discovery of the Parts; and in her Way is attacked by a Pirate, but in the attempt the Pirate is overcome, the Pirates may forthwith be executed without any Solemnity of Condemnation, by the Marine Law.

Our ancestors saw the deterrent value of such punitive measures, and recognized pirates as hostis humani generis, enemies of mankind, not misunderstood and disenfranchised cases for transnational social programs.

For fighting pirates in time-honored fashion, the Russians will doubtless be condemned by Western policy elites for their brutality and offensively undemocratic 19th-century understanding of the world. This is encouraging news for those who seek the restoration, ever so slightly, of a traditional West. Today's Russia has not yet reached her full potential as a bastion of conservatism, but we can take heart and learn from some of her successes at turning back, or just plain breaking, the clock.