Days after the U.S. Navy rescued an American merchant captain from Somali pirates, Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) wants to invoke a principle from the early United States republic to allow ships to defend themselves from pirates when traveling through international waters.
In a YouTube video posted to his Web site (watch below), Ron Paul said "The marque and reprisal principle was used in our early years, lo and behold, for pirates. That means that they’re under international agreement and understanding and a letter coming from our US Congress, those ships do have the right under international law to defend themselves."
But what are these letters of marque and reprisal? Politico explains:
Used heavily during the Revolution and the War of 1812, letters of marque serve as official warrants from the government, allowing privateers to seize or destroy enemies, their loot and their vessels in exchange for bounty money.
The letters also require would-be thrill seekers to post a bond promising to abide by international rules of war.
Paul criticized shipping companies for prohibiting guns on ships and telling crews not to resist pirate attacks because of their cargo's value.
"But think about it," he said, "think about a couple little motor boats running up to these large vessels with 4 or 5 pirates and they can take over these vessels and then hold ships hostage."
Known for his strict adherence to free-market economic principles, Paul also said it's the shipping company and vessel's responsibility to protect themselves while traveling in seas known to be dangerous.
"But I, quite frankly, think that the responsibility ought to fall on these liners. I don’t think just because people go into these dangerous waters, that our army and navy and air force and everything has to follow these individuals."
Paul fears the Somali piracy problem will only lead to a further militarizaton of the region surrounding Somalia, a war-torn failed state, that will waste taxpayers' money. He, like others, fears another “Blackhawk Down” incident.
“I hope most people do remember the foolish attempt when Clinton went into Somalia in the early 1990s and a fiasco resulted,” he said. “We got involved in a civil war there and supported one faction and several of our helicopters went down and a dozen or so of our people were killed, but we left.”
Eli Lehrer, a fellow and security expert at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, said Paul’s plan should be cheaper.
“The only cost under letters of marque would be some sort of bounty for the pirates,” he said.
Others worry privatizing the fight against piracy is fraught with problems.
Andrew Grotto, a national security expert with the Center for American Progress, told Politico “just given the experience in Iraq with private contractors, that effort showcases the difficulties dealing with folks who aren’t answerable to anyone but shareholders.”
Others worry about the legal ramifications when U.S.-sponsored privateers successfully attack pirates in or near another country’s territorial waters. Whose jurisdiction do the pirates fall underneath? What do they do with the pirates? Where, if anywhere, should they be prosecuted?
There’s an even more fundamental question, according to Politico: What exactly constitutes piracy?
“At what time does an act seem pirate-like enough to cross the line?” Grotto asked. “Do we really want these snap judgments being made on the fly in waters thousands of miles away from Washington? This is not Johnny Depp we’re dealing with."