Legal Uncertainty, Prisoner Releases Making Piracy Problem Worse

April 9, 2010

Piracy off the coast of Somalia is getting worse, partly due to the legal limbo that has led some countries to release captured suspects, Russia’s U.N. envoy said this week.

Over the past year and a half, the U.N. Security Council has passed several resolutions on piracy in the Horn of Africa and has authorized countries to use military force to pursue pirates in cooperation with Somalia’s transitional government.

“So far the results have not been entirely satisfactory,” Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters after a closed-door council meeting on Somalia, Iraq and other issues.

“The problem continues to be there and, in some respects, is growing,” he said. “We feel that one of the weak links in the entire setup … is the legal process.”

He said a stable legal mechanism was needed “to be sure there is no impunity once pirates are caught off the coast of Somalia.”

Churkin said Russia had drafted a Security Council resolution that would call on U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to outline options for ending the international legal ambiguities that have enabled pirates to escape prosecution.

Council delegations would continue discussing the draft at the expert level before putting it to a vote, he said. It was not clear when the resolution would be ready to vote on.

The hijacking of ships near the coast of Somalia, where an Islamist insurgency and lawlessness has created a pirate safe haven, has cost the shipping industry millions of dollars but it is difficult to prosecute those planning an attack.

Earlier Tuesday, a South Korean navy destroyer caught up with a supertanker hijacked by pirates that is cruising towards the Somali coast with a cargo of crude oil worth as much as $170 million, an official said Tuesday.

Russia, Japan, the European Union and others have sent naval forces to the region to combat the scourge of piracy.

But the European Union Naval Force’s operation commander, Rear Admiral Peter Hudson, told Reuters recently that some suspected pirates detained by EU NAVFOR have had to be released due to questions about who could try them.

Churkin said Moscow was “concerned” about reports of European authorities releasing suspected pirates.

Kenya has been holding a number of suspected pirates. But Churkin said media reports that Kenya would put an end to trials for them were unsettling.

“This is one of the reasons we think this resolution would be timely and appropriate,” he said.

One option, he added, would be to establish a special tribunal to try suspected pirates captured off Somalia.

Other Security Council diplomats have said privately that such special tribunals are complicated, expensive and might not be worth the trouble. It would be better, they said, to work with countries like Kenya to help them continue to prosecute pirates in national courts.

(Editing by John O’Callaghan)

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