The return of piracy

Ninety-five per cent of the world’s cargo travels by sea. Without the merchant marine, the free market would collapse and take Wall Street’s dream of a global economy with it. Yet no one, apart from ship owners, their crews and insurers, appears to notice that pirates are assaulting ships at a rate unprecedented since the glorious days when pirates were ‘privateers’ protected by their national governments. The 18th and 19th-century sponsors of piracy included England, Holland, France, Spain and the United States. In comparison, the famed Barbary corsairs of North Africa were an irritant. Raiding rivals’ merchant vessels went out of fashion after the Napoleonic Wars, and piracy was outlawed in the 1856 Declaration of Paris (never signed by the US). Since the end of the Cold War, it has been making a comeback. Various estimates are given of its cost to international trade. The figure quoted most often is the Asia Foundation’s $16 billion per annum lost in cargo, ships and rising insurance premiums.

The International Maritime Bureau (IMB), which collects statistics on piracy for ship owners, reports that five years ago pirates attacked 106 ships. Last year they attacked 370. This year looks worse still. In the first nine months, there were 344 attacks, up from 271 for the same period in 2002. Twenty crewmen have been murdered so far this year, up from six a year ago. If violent crime increased more than 300 per cent in five years in New York or London, the public would demand urgent police action. At sea, where the only lives lost are those of poor seafarers from the Third World, no one cares.

Here is the full story. The U.S. government is not making this a priority, but the next major terrorist attack may well be seaborne.