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by Ole Martin Moen, Ph.D. student in philosophy at University of Oslo and upcoming visitor at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics

Since February, the Danish sailor Jan Quist Johansen, his wife, Birgit, and their three children, Rune, Hjalte and Naja, have been held hostage by Somali pirates. After a failed rescue attempt in March, the family has been treated brutally and many now claim that if the ransom is not paid immediately, they risk execution – just as two American couples, Jean and Scott Adams, and Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle, were executed by pirates earlier this year when ransoms were not paid in time.

The human cost of refusing to pay is high. Sadly, however, the human cost of paying is even higher.

By paying the pirates, we encourage piracy – and the reason why the Johansen family is now held hostage is that over recent years, countries and companies have made it customary to pay ransoms when pirates seize ships. This policy has led to a dramatic increase in both the number of seizures and the size of demands. In 2009, Somali pirates received $58 million in ransoms; in 2010, they received $238 million. The current year of 2011 is on its way to hit a new record high, and Geopolicity Inc. has estimated the piracy “market” to be worth between $4.9 billion and $8.3 billion.

No one should be surprised that by paying hundreds of millions of dollars in ransoms, we have gotten more of what we have paid for. History has taught us this time and time again. Yet every time, we have forgotten our hard-earned lesson.

When the Danes were on the other side of the deal and the British and French paid Danegeld (Danish tax) to avoid Viking attacks, the Vikings gained strength and for each payment, their next demand was higher. While the Danegeld in 990 A.D. was 11,500 ounces of silver, it was 450,000 ounces in 1007 A.D. and 650,000 ounces in 1012 A.D. Rudyard Kipling described the practice aptly in his poem “Danegeld”:

It is always a temptation for a rich and lazy nation,
To puff and look important and to say:
“Though we know we should defeat you, we have not the time to meet you.
We will therefore pay you cash to go away.”

And that is called paying the Danegeld;
But we’ve proved it again and again,
That if once you have paid him the Danegeld
You never get rid of the Dane.

The British and the French have paid large-scale ransoms in more recent times as well. In the 18th century, when seizures by North African pirates were on the rise, they paid liberally to avoid confrontation. In the latter half of that century, another country also became a tempting target for the pirates: the United States – a young country with its military forces several weeks’ journey away. The seizure of U.S. ships started when The Betsy was taken by Moroccan pirates in 1784. To get the ship back and to save captain and crew from being sold as slaves, the United States paid the pirates $20,000. Less than a year later, two ships, The Dauphin and The Maria, were seized by Algerian pirates. Now the ransom demanded was $60,000. Again, the United States paid. In 1793, Algeria held 11 American ships and 105 crew members hostage. To set them free, Algeria demanded $600,000 – a sum the U.S. paid partly in gunpowder and weapons.

When Thomas Jefferson assumed the presidency after John Adams, U.S. foreign policy changed and Jefferson initiated the Barbary Wars. Although the First Barbary War was not successful, the Second Barbary War was. By sending heavily armed naval vessels to the Mediterranean, the U.S. military killed numerous pirates and sunk numerous pirate ships – and once they gained the upper hand, they demanded unconditional surrender, threatening complete annihilation if their demands were not met. Contrary to custom, the United States also refused to pay to have the remaining hostages freed. The slogan of the war was “Millions for defense, but not a cent for tribute.” Stephen Decatur, who led the forces, said during the negotiations, “If you insist upon receiving gunpowder as tribute, you must expect to receive [cannon] balls with it.” Decatur brought the pirates to their knees and by doing so, secured for the United States its reputation as a nation one is well advised not to attack.

We must learn from Jefferson and Decatur and understand that the reason why the pirates attack us is that by paying, we have made it lucrative to attack. Somali pirates are responsive to incentives. As Martin Murphy writes in Somalia, the New Barbary? (Columbia University Press, 2011), they are neither irrational nor desperate and poverty-stricken. Rather, Somali piracy is financed in a manner resembling a stock market: The pirates and their investors calculate risk, and on the street in Somalia, pirates are “identifiable by their cellphones, Western cigarettes and access to plentiful supplies of khat.” The pirates know what they are doing, as is made evident by the fact that Russian and Iranian ships are left alone. Russia and Iran both refused to negotiate the first time their ships were seized and resolutely attacked the pirates. Those who hijack ships, it seems, are as responsive to incentives as are those who hijack airplanes. Since most countries stopped negotiating with airplane hijackers after Sept. 11, 2001, virtually no airplanes have been hijacked.

It is tempting to pay the ransom to save the Johansen family but if we do, we sacrifice future families by giving the pirates more incentive to attack. Admittedly, we feel more strongly about the misery of those who are kept hostage today than we feel about the misery of future hostages whose identity we do not yet know. That, however, should not dictate defense policy and had the international community understood that five years ago, the Johansen family would not be held hostage today.

Rather than paying, we should attack – and we should do so resolutely, with overwhelming military force. A relentless assault is desirable because it lowers the risk of a long, drawn-out, tortuous battle. When hundreds of warships fill the horizon and a pirate’s only hope for survival lies in dropping his weapons and not harming hostages, chances are he will understand where his interests lie. Most importantly, however, an overwhelming attack would make piracy cost more than it is worth and establishing that would save future sailors from pirate attacks.

To place piracy where it belongs – in history books – we must brace ourselves and follow Kipling’s advice:

It is wrong to put temptation in the path of any nation
For fear they should succumb and go astray;
So when you are requested to pay up or be molested,
You will find it better policy to say:

We never pay anyone Danegeld,
No matter how trifling the cost;
For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
And the nation that plays it is lost!

(Originally published in Washington Times on July 14, 2011. Copyright held by the author. Thanks to Roger Crisp for inviting me to post the article on this blog!)

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11 Comment on this post

  1. This is a really interesting discussion of a topic that is often treated with an unfortunate lack of seriousness.

    I'm convinced by your arguments when the entity considering whether or not to pay is a state. States have responsibilities to all their citizens, and sometimes have to accept risks for certain individuals in order to avoid future harm to other citizens.

    But I'm less convinced when the payer-entity is an individual, an insurance company, or a corporation. Individuals are the clearest cases: if you happen to have enough money to pay the ransom for your family, I can't see my way to saying you do something morally wrong if you pay up. Granted, doing so will – per your arguments – slightly raise the future risk for everyone else. But when the options are a very high risk of death to your loved ones versus a slightly increased risk of danger to others, it doesn't seem wrong to favor your loved ones.

    Insurance companies are fairly simple too: if a company agrees to provide piracy insurance to an individual, including ransom coverage, then the company has effectively made a promise and ought to fulfill it. (Perhaps this is an argument that insurance firms ought not offer insurance covering ransom.)

    Corporations are the trickiest case. Corporations have particular obligations to their employees, especially when employees become endangered while on the job (such as crewing a super-tanker in the Indian Ocean). My view here isn't settled, but it does seem possible that corporations are in a position somewhat like families: given the particular obligations obtaining between a corporation and its employees, a high risk of death to employees may justify action that slightly increases risk to everyone else.

    It's worth noting that "increased risk to everyone else" involved in the above trade-offs is voluntary risk. Almost no one has to be on a ship in pirate-infested waters, and these days everyone knows that this is a dangerous thing to do. Given the relatively voluntary nature of the risk, it seems less worrisome that, say, my paying ransom for my family slightly increases the risk on others.

    Finally, all of the above might reinforce your central point. If families, insurance companies, and corporations are not obliged to refrain from paying ransom, then states need to be all the more determined to confront piracy aggressively, since non-state actors will only be increasing the incentive for piracy.

  2. Christophe Chazot

    That's a detail, but Jean and Scott Adams, and Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle were not executed because the ransom was not paid in time, but as a retaliation because US military were assaulting the SV Quest on which they were kept by the pirates.

    The Danish government seems to agree with you and does not pay the ransom. I guess you have read in the danish press the very crude words that were used by the crew member kept as hostage with the Quists, and the equally crude words that were used by crew members of DNS Esbern Snare. All ask for their government to pay (hotage crew) or to attack (military crew). And, besides any state action, I understand the family of the hostages who tries to gather the amount of the ransom in Danemark, as Regina wrote.

    A real answer to the piracy in the Indian Ocean could be a military action, but the merchant crews used as human shields on mother ships or ashore seem to refrain all states from acting. See what happened to the SV Quest and to the FV Jih-Chun Tsai #68 (the captain of which was killed when USS Stephen W Groves intercepted it because it was used a s a mother ship for piracy acts) among many others. Killing hostages or leaving them die is definetly not in the views of the governments – even those that never pay a cent in ransom, and even those who used to act very aggressively against pirates such as India's. So the question is not only a question of Danegeld / money, it's also a question about human life taken in consideration either by states or by families.

    Moreover, no one can send 'hundreds of warships' on the Somali coast, and a land attack would kill more locals than pirates, so the massive attack you suggest seems hardly realistic. So what ? Arm merchantmen with guards, escort convoys (and convince shipping companies to form convoys – as Russians and Chinese do), avoid further captures and let time work for current hostages ? Isn't it more or less what's going on now ?

  3. There are actually quite a large number of warships in the area:

    Clearly, the costs of countries sending their navy out there to provide a disincentive to piracy need to be balanced against the costs of supporting security and humanitarian aid in Somalia. If the country as a whole was less of a complete mess, then perhaps pirates would be able to find other means of income. I don't see how sending 'hundreds of warships' will provide a long-term disincentive, unless the warships stay there long-term.

  4. Christophe Chazot

    To Matt :
    The list of warships given in includes all ships that have been, at a given moment, involved in anti-piracy patrols, but does not reflect the current number of ships deployed. For instance : Japan has only two ships deployed at a time, China has only one flottilla deployed (two warships and one support ship), France does not deploy a SSN permanently, Russia has only one destroyer with one tug and one tanker at a time, and so on.

    In all, that makes 20 to 30 ships deployed against piracy, together with insufficient maritime patrol aircraft. That's clearly not enough to protect the sea lanes in that ocean.

    What's more strange is the habit that some military ships have to capture pirates and release them a few hours later because no country (except Kenya) in the zone is willing or able to bring pirates to justice. How many countries did bring some to court ? Spain, Belgium, South Korea, USA, Kenya, India, (sure I forget some) and it had almost no results on piracy levels.

    With the limited military means deployed and the various reluctancies of states regarding death toll and money spendings, the only working methods so far seem to be (a) put armed guards on merchant ships, and (b) organize escorted convoys as China and Russia do.

  5. I would argue that, ultimately, a strict "no ransom" policy is impossible. It's a classic "problem of the commons". While it's optimal for society in general to never pay ransoms, those with loved ones held for ransom gain little of the society-wide benefit by not paying – getting kidnapped is generally a once in a lifetime thing. But stand to gain everything by giving in.

  6. Regina: My policy suggstion is intended for states. When it comes to individual citizens and companies, I agree with you: For them, irreplacable values might be at stake, and as wrote Gringoguide (above), "those with loved ones held for ransom gain little of the society-wide benefit by not paying." Individual citizens and companies might have good reason to pay, and it would be harsh to condemn them for paying. Virtually everyone, I assume, would pay if this were the only way to save a loved one.

    Even if we accept that it might be morally okay for individual citizens and companies to pay, however, it might still be the case that it should be illegal for them to pay. That's a political question, not a moral one, and I'm open for the possibility that certain morally acceptable actions should be banned. If by banning the practice of paying ransoms we could drastically reduce hostage taking (whether that would the effect is of course an open question), I believe a ban could be justified. Do you agree?

    Christophe: You write that "the merchant crews used as human shields […] seem to refrain all states from acting." That is true. But should that keep states from acting? If one refrains from attacking the pirates because they use human shields, that's an incentive for the pirates to use human shields (and as we know, pirates respond to incentives). I'm sympathetic to the "hard" solution: To attack anyway, even if doing so leads to the deaths of innocents. It seems to me that all the blood spilt in such an attack would be on the pirates' hands — and only a policy of attacking the pirates regardless of how cruel they are to their victims will be effective in bringing piracy to an end.

    You suggest:

    "Arm merchantmen with guards, escort convoys (and convince shipping companies to form convoys – as Russians and Chinese do), avoid further captures and let time work for current hostages ? Isn’t it more or less what’s going on now?"

    Yes, that's what's going on now — and piracy is still on the rise.

    Matt: You write: "I don’t see how sending ‘hundreds of warships’ will provide a long-term disincentive, unless the warships stay there long-term." I think that after an overwhelming initial attack, most of the warships could be sent away. We would still need a firm policy of attacking remaining hijackers, and to do so with sufficient military force not to give the hijackers a chance to win. That, however, would presumably require fewer warships than would an initial attack. Once such policy is in place, moreover, we will hardly need to attack any more hijackers, since hijacking will disappear or at least be drastically reduced (as has been the case with airplane hijacking).

  7. Christophe Chazot

    Most of merchantmen that cross the Indian Ocean don't embark armed guards. Several shipping companies have long been reluctant to do it because it creates some problems such as opening fire on fishermen as it happened to occur. Those companies which have done it for a long time (mainly Chinese and Russian companies) and that accept to form convoys so that they can be escorted by a warship managed to get rid of the problem. Did you notice any Russian or Chinese merchant ship taken in the last 12 months ? No. The rise of piracy is fueled by the reluctancy of companies to put guards on their ships, to adopt "Best Management Practices" against piracy and to accept the constraints of forming convoys (that slows traffic and thus has a cost). An increasing number of companies decided to embark guards, but that's rather recent (May, June, July 2011) and convenience flag companies still don't, so they will remain easy preys, as will all fihing ships operating without protection and without reporting posistions to any merchant organization.
    So, sorry, when you write 'that's what going on', it's a big short-cut.

    The 'solution' you suggest (to attack hard) has been put into practice permanently by the Indian Navy for almost two years (2009-2011) and occasionnally by other navies or coast guards (US, France, Danemark, Seychelles, South Corea, Indonesia) against ships on which crews were kept in custody to con and run the ship. When the attacks lead to innocent deaths, the military were criticised and in some cases it lead to state affairs or to cases in court against the military, not against pirates. Innocent blood may be on the hand of pirates in your book, it's not as simple in many minds. Families and bosses of the deads think it's the assaulter's fault. In the Quist Johansen affair, the danish naval ship Esbern Snare has stayed in the vicinity for months, but did not try any action; is it because previous actions from this warship against MV Beluga nomination lead the pirates to kill hostages? or because the danish government does not want to put its citizens, who are kept on board MV Dover by several guards, at risk?
    Note that even India has shifted its policy two months ago because pirates were taking retaliation measures against Indian sailors they keep.

    Currently things quiet down a bit on the piracy front, because of the monsoon and because of the famine in Somalia (pirates are fed by villagers and of course famine does not facilitate this levy – the Dover with the Quist Johansen family has been forced to change position two or three times in the past two months because villagers refused to feed the pirates). I guess things will change again at the end of the summer monsoon, either because the pirates resume their activities, or because international community occupies the Somali coast for humanitarian reasons. Maybe the solution to the piracy issue is on solid ground, not only at sea.

  8. I hope and pray that captives are released as soon as possible without paying any form of ransom. However, the question that is puzzling me the most is what were they doing in the area that is infested with the pirates? Rationally speaking, do we think of going to Afghanistan, Iraq or even to Libya for a vacation? Why did they go in that area in the first place? Why do we always try to treat symptoms rather than eliminating the causes? Why did the "hikers" go hiking in Iran? And now, everyone is filling the newspaper columns condemning the Iranians sentencing both for eight years. The world is no longer a peaceful sanctuary; whoever wishes to travel, must do it diligently.

  9. Fresh news! The German government says that protection from Somalian piracy is not its duty. If the merchants want protection, they should hire private companies:

    This is the typical German "not-our-problem" approach for things like this (and every other, actually).

    To Khalid: I think these irrational examples are much more common that we would expect. Yet one more example: a Dutch friend of mine was visiting Iran for a vacation and, while talking to a Iranian girl, almost got beaten, just because of that: he shouldn't talk to single girls. He got away with it only because he feigned stupidity to the police.

  10. In fact, the article published by Faz and pointed out by Theo speaks only about police, that's why it's the Home Office (Innenministerium) who speaks. According to the ministry, the missions of the police do not encompass the protection of shipping in the Indian ocean. However, warships of the Bundesmarine are deployed in the Indian ocean to protect ships of the World Food Programme and to participate to anti-piracy missions. Bundesmarine is not under the Home Office.

  11. To Theo: how is it that my argument is irrational? The example I gave is based on facts and grounded in the realities of life as we experience it today. As for your example, you should be in a better position to know that in philosophy, there is no room for personal anecdotes or stories. If you meant a 'thought experiment,' then you should clearly state it. You must refute my argument based on factual information, and not by way of emotional outburst.

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