No one doubts that the pirate-infested waters off the coast of Somalia have become increasingly dangerous over the past year. The European Union just isn't sure it can do anything about it.
Pirates bit off more than they could chew when they nabbed the Ukrainian merchant vessel Faina last month.
After a spate of increasingly brazen attacks -- including the
hijacking in late September of a Ukrainian vessel transporting military tanks -- the EU and NATO both agreed to send war ships to escort commercial tankers travelling through the Gulf of Aden between Somalia and Yemen. The NATO mission, dubbed "Allied Provider," began Monday. As the December launch date of the EU mission nears, though, the European Parliament seems to be getting cold feet.
Parliamentarians are concerned that the mandate is dangerously vague. Critics point out that it's not clear whether war ships sailing under the EU flag would have the authority to sink pirate ships or arrest their crew.
The pertinent maritime law is indeed ambiguous. In June, the UN Security Council gave a green light to the international community to undertake robust efforts by declaring Somali piracy a threat to international peace. But, the degree of engagement of will depend on every individual country's national laws.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has already shown that he takes an expansive view of his country's laws: earlier this year, Sarkozy ordered military force to be used against Somali pirates after they hijacked passenger ships. But, Germany's hands seem more tightly tied: it is still bound by a 1994 treaty that forbids attacking ships that have successfully taken hostages. There are also questions as to what role the German constitution would allow the country to play.
In any case, maritime experts are skeptical about the efficacy of the the NATO and EU missions, suggesting that they will only serve as band-aids until the root cause, namely the lawlessness throughout Somalia, can be addressed.
European parliamentarians, for their part, point out that European military forces are already overstretched to the snapping point. One parliamentarian pointed out that, as a result, European military operations are all "chronically underfinanced."
If Europe feels behooved to search for more affordable solutions, the history books offer at least one cost-effective option: In the 17th century, Haiti's French governor tried to tame local pirates by shipping hundreds of prostitutes to their lair. That mission, it seems, was a success.