The Law and the High Seas: Germany Looks to Battle Pirates

NATO has promised to send ships to the Gulf of Aden to work with a planned EU force against pirates off the coast of Somalia. Russia's navy has called for more cooperation from the West, while Germany works out just what its sailors can do.

German warships should be used against pirates wherever German interests are threatened, said German Defense Minister Franz-Josef Jung on Thursday after a meeting in New York with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Berlin has promised a frigate to a planned European Union naval force in December, but the German government -- which is always nervous about using military force -- has yet to clarify the constitution allows its sailors to do on the high seas.

"Where German interests are affected, we will work to bring (pirates) to justice," he said. But he called for an international solution to the piracy problem, which caught the world's attention after a massive oil tanker was hijacked in the Indian Ocean last weekend and held for ransom in Somalia.

The EU's "Operation Atalanta," meant to deploy in December, will patrol for pirates off the Horn of Africa and escort UN aid ships bound for Somalia. The NATO alliance has promised a wider operation in the Gulf of Aden that would work closely with the EU. Moscow has called for close Western coordination with its navy.

Russia sent a frigate to the region in late September, after a Ukrainian ship loaded with tanks was hijacked by Somali pirates. That ship has not yet been freed. Admiral Vladimir Vysotskiy, head of the Russian navy, has said more of Moscow's ships off the Horn of Africa would be "necessary" in light of the pirate activity over the last week.

Military vs. Police Action

But before "Operation Atalanta" deploys, the German government will revisit its laws to make sure its navy can work effectively. The cabinet will meet on or before December 3 to decide whether, for example, the German navy can take on police-force duties and arrest pirates.

Some Social Democrats and members of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party have argued that anti-piracy missions are covered already by German law. "We're just embarrassing ourselves," said Dieter Wiefelspütz, a Social Democratic parliamentarian, to the Neue Presse newspaper in Hanover. A UN treaty on maritime law ratified 20 years ago by the Federal Republic of Germany mentions an international duty to fight pirates; some argue this gives Berlin all the freedom it needs.

But another Social Democrat, Walter Kolbow, told the Saarbrücker Zeitung that "according to our understanding of the law, police officers but not soldiers may arrest criminals." The German constitution, written with the help of Allies after World War II, specifically separates the duties of police officers and soldiers to prevent a return in Germany to martial law.

Kolbow said an anti-piracy mission off the Horn of Africa must not create "loopholes for any military action within Germany."

msm -- with wire reports

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