When people hear the word “pirate”, it evokes childhood memories of when their parents used to read to them stories of Blackbeard, Treasure Island, Peter Pan and the like. They picture sea faring barbarians with ships the size of zeppelins, slaying whatever came their way. These pirates were fearless, shameless and aweless, and were the true “gold diggers” (I pity the context in which this phrase is used today). With bushy beards, eye patches, hooks and companion parrots, they epitomize Halloween costumes. It is quite evident that our childhood perceptions of pirates, more often than not, characterize the way most of us see real sea pirates today. We often believe they are the same. But you’d be surprised to see the extent to which this is untrue…
So what makes someone a pirate? A typical fictional pirate is driven by greed. He seeks treasure in the most obscure of places to satisfy his material ‘wants’ rather than his ‘needs’. He is insatiable; always on the lookout for more treasure, irrespective of how much he already has. Some of these pirates are born pirates with strong ancestral chains binding them to their occupation. The most conspicuous feature of these pirates is that they take pride in what they do, whether it’s engaging in sword fights, killing by the dozen or making enemies walk the plank.
Let us turn to reality now. Other than the obvious superficial differences between the fictional and the real pirate, there is a marked difference in their motives. To say that a real pirate is driven by greed would be wrong; categorically wrong. A real pirate indulges in maritime piracy because he has no other choice. What do I mean by this?
Let me take the example of Somali piracy to clarify. In Somalia, the number of well-paid employment opportunities is close to nothing. Ineffective governance coupled with a deteriorated economy has contributed to this. As a result, the Somalian labor force is faced with two occupational choices that are backed by a reasonable income; Fishing and Piracy. And as Somali fishing grounds are continually being intruded by foreign naval tanks, the latter option becomes more auspicious. Somali pirates do not take pride in what they do, but they have to do it nonetheless. They do it to satisfy their material ‘needs’ rather than ‘wants’. They do it to feed their families, to send their children to school, to care for their dying mothers and to live under a roof. Piracy is not a choice because a choice requires at least two options to choose from. Piracy is a consequence; a consequence no one would like to be a part of.
As Ban Ki Moon perfectly put it, “Although piracy manifests itself at sea, the roots of the problem are to be found ashore. In essence, piracy is a criminal offence that is driven by economic hardship, and that flourishes in the absence of effective law enforcement.”
Much like terrorists, pirates are not born, they are made. Hence deploying several naval capabilities to destroy pirate ships is not going to put a nail in the coffin. Investments directed at state building reforms should be the norm if we want to end maritime piracy. These reforms will go a long way in creating good opportunities for Somali workers. Efficient governance and robust judiciary systems should also be in place that have zero tolerance towards piracy. If these cards are played out right, piracy will no longer be a consequence. It will be a choice; a choice, that I’m willing to bet, no one will take.