Suspected Pirates Prove Difficult To Prosecute

Most suspected pirates caught around the Horn of Africa are released because there is no clear system for prosecuting them. J. Peter Pham, Africa project director at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, joins Melissa Block to explain why.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The 11 suspected pirates flown to Virginia for indictment are the exception. Most pirates stopped by counter-piracy Navy vessels around the horn of Africa have been released. There is no clear system for pirate prosecution.

And J. Peter Pham is here to explain why. He's Africa project director at the think tank, the National Committee on American Foreign Policy. Welcome to the program.

Mr. J. PETER PHAM (Africa Project Director, National Committee on American Foreign Policy): Thank you. Pleasure to be with you, Melissa.

BLOCK: And, Mr. Pham, you've been looking at what happens to pirates once they are stopped. What have you found?

Mr. PHAM: Well, I found that over 60 percent of them, the ones that are stopped and identified aren't even taken into custody. I tracked the number of pirates stopped by the international community between August of 2008 and the end of 2009, 706 of them. And only 269 were actually taken into custody. And of those, only 46 so far have been convicted. So, it's a conviction rate of less than 7 percent of those that are stopped for piracy.

BLOCK: There is a pirate leader who told the New York Times, they can't stop us, we know international law. Do you think he's right? Is the law actually on their side?

Mr. PHAM: Well, it is when you get into the nitty gritty of the details. Certainly piracy is a law. It's the original, actually, international crime. And international customary law, as well as the law of the sea, declares it a crime that it's up to individual nations to pass laws that enable the actual prosecution of pirates in courts by specifying burdens of proof, specifying penalties, et cetera. And so that makes it a little easier. So it may be a crime, but it's difficult to prosecute without that specificity.

BLOCK: And why would that be? There seems to be such a flagrant violation. This should be a slam dunk.

Mr. PHAM: Well, because piracy we thought went away by the 19th century. So, many modern law codes didn't incorporate them. The U.S., for example, will be prosecuting these 11 new pirates, as well as the one who was taken from the Maersk Alabama incident last year, they're actually being prosecuted under a piracy statute that dates back to the 19th century.

BLOCK: Now, most of the pirates who have been taken in for prosecution have been sent to Kenya, which you call a convenient dumping ground. Kenya now says it's overloaded with cases. It cannot bear the burden of these prosecutions anymore.

Mr. PHAM: Right. Kenya has (unintelligible). One is capacity. We've dropped well over 200 pirates on them. This is a country whose justice system is suffering as it was by capacity overload before the pirates were dumped on them. And then there's a political issue. Kenya is a country driven by ethnic and religious tensions. And the specter of these Muslim ethnic Somali pirates being tried certainly has not helped communal tensions in Kenya.

BLOCK: Well, one solution that's been talked about is to form an international tribunal to handle these cases. Is that going anywhere?

Mr. PHAM: It certainly has merit. The problem is there's very little political will right now to start another international tribunal. International tribunals tend to be very expensive and they're difficult to set up. And once they're set up, it takes a while for them to come up to speed. And so that will simply lead to a further backlog.

BLOCK: And is there any evidence that the threat of prosecution has been any deterrent to would-be pirates?

Mr. PHAM: No, as the quote you mentioned earlier from The New York Times, where a pirate leader says I know the law and the law protects me. Ultimately, the solution of piracy, however, is found not in prosecution of individual pirates, that's the symptom, but really in dealing with the root causes of piracy, which is the lack of anything resembling a government in Somalia.

And then the other thing is the rewards. As long as multimillion dollar ransoms are being paid, people who otherwise would be living off of less than a couple hundred dollars a year per family are going to find multimillion dollar rewards quite enticing.

BLOCK: Okay, J. Peter Pham with the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, a think tank in New York. Thanks very much.

Mr. PHAM: Pleasure.

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