Up until now, Kenya and the Seychelles have taken the majority of the caught pirates, thanks to memoranda of understanding they signed with the anti-piracy fleet. But over the last year, they have simply reached their limit. Their judicial systems are overburdened as it is. It's not just a matter of funding, although that has been one hold up: The two countries simply don't have enough local prosecutors and defense counsels capable of handling these complicated cases. And in the case of Kenya, the country's own restive ethnic Somali and Muslim populations were growing antagonized by a seemingly endless parade of Muslim Somali prisoners captured by Western warships.
All the legal hoopla meant that very few pirates actually made it to court. According to one U.S. tally, some 706 individual pirates were encountered by naval vessels of the ad hoc counter-piracy coalition between August 2008 and December 2009. Eleven of these were killed resisting arrest and another 269 turned over for prosecution. Just 46 have been convicted so far and 23 acquitted. All together, that means that nearly 60 percent of the pirates encountered were simply released.
This week, the U.N. Security Council stepped in once again, unanimously adopting a Russian-sponsored resolution on the matter. The resolution requires the secretary-general to report back with options for prosecuting and imprisoning pirates, including the creation of special international piracy courts. If countries can't or won't try the pirates, then darn it, the U.N. will.
The United Nations proposal is well-meant, but it may never come to fruition -- or if it does, it may be too late for the current crop of pirate-hunters to take advantage. The secretary-general's recommendations are still three months away and their implementation is still further in the horizon. And if past internationalized criminal proceedings are any indication, the courts will take several years to actually set up -- and that's assuming that the political will and money can be found to do so. (The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, for example, cost $376 million just for 2008 and 2009.)
Meanwhile, despite all the international community's efforts, the pirates are still plying their trade. Just last week, they pulled one of their most daring heists to date, sailing some 1,200 nautical miles from the Somali coast -- right past the naval task forces led by the United States, the European Union, and NATO, as well as the independently commanded Chinese, Russian, and Indian flotillas -- to seize three Thai fishing boats along with their 77 crew members. In terms of distance offshore and sheer number of hostages taken, the raid broke all previous records.
For the buccaneers, the equation still works out in their favor: exceptionally high rewards -- in January, a Greek-flagged tanker, the MV Maran Centaurus, was ransomed for a record $7 million -- traded for an extremely low probability of ever being prosecuted, much less convicted and sentenced. No wonder the pirates just keep on coming.