Walk the plank

A treasure ship, sitting low in the water with its heavy cargo of black gold, is assailed under cover of darkness by pirates. Their ship, faster and more nimble than the aging treasure hauler, sneaks up in the darkness. The pirates throw their grappling hooks and scale the stern, rushing aboard to take command of the bridge while a stunned crew is taken hostage.

Upon hearing of the predicament of the treasure ship, a Navy destroyer sets sail to intercept. Before the pirates could bring the stolen ship and cargo into their favorite harbour, where pirates ruled the streets, prostitutes plied the wharves, and order was nowhere to be found, the navy ship was able to board and retake the cargo carrier, freeing the crew and apprehending the pirates with no loss of life.

After a night mulling over the complex position he was in - needing to balance justice and the practical difficulties of trying pirates for their crimes - the navy captain settles on a traditional punishment. In the morning, the pirates were told to walk the plank. They have never been seen again.

This is in fact a true story. A true story not from the great age of sail, the rule of Queen Elizabeth, but from the rule of Queen Elizabeth II. Actually, from May 5th of this year.

The merchant ship was not a schooner but a Russian tanker, carrying 86,000 tons of crude oil worth $52 million. The pirates were not colorful figures with cutlasses but Somalis led by professionals who knew what this cargo was worth.

As for the Russian destroyer, it was not operating according to an 18th-century code of honor but according to international law, such as it is. Theoretically, the captain was supposed to hand the detainees and the evidence over to regional police. Not wanting to involve himself in legal wrangling, however, he decided to "release" the pirates instead. And thus they were "set free" in a tiny inflatable raft, with no navigation equipment, 350 miles off the coast of Yemen. The raft has since disappeared. In the 21st century, this is how pirates walk the plank.

In fact, the Russian destroyer wasn't the first to hit upon this solution. Asked last weekend, the commander of the European naval force that coordinates military operations off the Somali coast said there had been "similar instances" involving Dutch and Danish ships, but he declined to elaborate. He also noted that of 400 pirates captured in the last three months, only 40 have been prosecuted. The rest have been "released".

The issue of piracy in Somalia has caught the world's media by storm. It has all the elements needed: pirates, high seas adventure, guns, ransoms, hostages, drugs, a lack of moral ambiguity. But what they have not focused on, indeed not discussed, is the practice of walking the plank, which is as you can see the preferred way of dealing with pirates.

It is not terribly surprising that the Russian military is a little lax on humanitarian rights, but it is much more surprising that the Dutch and the Danes are as well. They generally see humanitarian rights as one of the most important aspects of modern life, right next to good coffee, 35hr work weeks, and social welfare.

The issue, as is so often the case, is that what we have here is a military solution to a humanitarian problem. There is no government in Somalia. Contrary to what many would think - this does not mean there is no economy, there is. And in some ways it has not been doing that badly. But it is still pretty much an ungoverned region with mass poverty - and that leads to crime. Especially when the developed world floats millions of dollars in front of you on a daily basis.

Still - this is not a legitimate way to deal with Somalia. We need to deal with the illness, not the symptoms, and killing off young Somali men who turned to crime in a country where your other options are, lets say, limited, is not a legitimate response.

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