Monday, April 13, 2009

You Can't Negotiate with Pirates, Can You?

"The only good pirate is a dead pirate." This is what some are saying, now that Capt. Philips of the Maersk Alabama is safe. I do not actually recall this sentiment when he was at risk, but now it is safer.

A pirate gang is like any other hostage takers. Whether they are to be negotiated with or just assaulted depends on circumstances. That applies to almost any potential negotiation. Whether it is worth talking with someone who owes you substantial money, or who claims you owe them depends on your assessment of (a) the potential benefit of talking, (b) the risk of not talking first, (c) the risk of proceeding directly to action, (d) the potential benefit of direct action.

The past couple years quite a few pirated ships have bought their freedom through substantial payments by their owners. Presumably, in each case there was at least some negotiation over price, payment method, and other details. No one was injured. In the case of the French yacht Le Ponant, two pirates and one hostage were killed. Some will say you should discount the dead pirates, only count the hostage dead, but that is debatable. Taking down hostage takers is potentially risky.

It is more risky if you announce a policy that you will not negotiate. Not talking at all makes their benefit for keeping live hostages zero. They have every reason to kill hostages before the hostages try to overpower them.

The potential benefit of talking is illustrated by the Alabama experience. One of the four hostage takers was talked into giving up after he was slightly injured. Three were easier to shoot with less risk to the hostage than four were.

What is there to discuss with hostage takers? Depending on circumstances, letting them get back in their fishing boat, disarmed but with a promise of no jail, at least no US/French/Russian/German jail, may be appealing to them. On the other hand, they may prefer a deal where they do time in one of those jails, but not in a Somali jail.

In other words, price of a buy-off is never the only thing to talk about.

Reducing piracy off Somalia may best be had by automating the means of sending notice to authorities and ensuring that helicopters or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will soon be overhead relaying back live high-def video. Still, one should not confuse negotiation in a specific piracy situation with best strategies for reducing piracy. The facts are grossly different.

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