Freezing Pirate Assets?

On April 15, 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a series of steps that the State Department was going to start implementing to expand efforts to combat piracy on the high seas.

There were four main points including:  1. Sending an envoy envoy to Brussels to attend an international Somali peacekeeping and development meeting; 2.  Additional Contact Group meetings to expand international response and increase cooperation; 3.  Engage Somali Transitional Federal Government leaders and regional leaders; and 4. work with shippers and the insurance industry to address gaps in their self-defense measures. Read announcement here.

Today, U.S. shippers and insurance companies are operating in a somewhat murky legal environment and must choose between possibly breaking U.S. law by negotiating with pirates (and most likely securing a safe release of crew and cargo) or engaging the military and other governments for assistance (a sometimes drawn out process and fraught with risk for violence that places the life of the crew in possibly more danger). 

One particular action item of note was that the U.S. Government would “explore tracking and freezing pirate assets.”  How would this impact U.S. shippers and insurance companies?  Is the U.S. going to treat pirates as they treat other specially designated nationals or SDNs and make it illegal for U.S. persons, including corporations such as insurance companies, from paying ransoms to pirates in exchange for the release of crews and cargo?  

It is an open question whether the listing process can make a dent on piracy.  Based on public information, the Somali pirates may be nothing more than regional bandits and may, or may not, have ties to larger movements based on the region. A writer at the University of Geneva MBA program for International Organizations makes the point that

“For a country with no welfare programs piracy may be the only hope and those involved in it can seek statehood in the eyes of the people. The pirates turned patriots shall celebrate the bigger catches and the masses shall rally behind their providers. In such a scenario, how easy would it be for foreign militaries to chase pirates on the land or sea?”

For these, and many other reasons rooted in the very reasons that gave rise to piracy in the first place off the coast of east Africa, the U.S. should seriously consider adapting the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) approach as an alternative for dealing with this matter.  Adopting a PSI approach would be consistent with other, more established sanctions programs and legal regimes designed to nab terrorists and proliferators of weapons of mass destruction.  

One of the least discussed issues, at least publicly in DC, is what links do these east African pirates have to regional and international terrorists organizations?   By negotiating with these pirates, U.S. shipping companies and insurance providers could be getting more than they bargained for.  A country-by-country approach, based on established legal regimes, and supported by regional and international efforts, makes for a more sound and transparent process than through a U.N.-led focus.

Stay tuned.  Expect a lot more in the days and weeks ahead on these matters.

%d bloggers like this: