Why the US is going after piracy in the Caribbean, where it hasn’t existed for 200 years

Hands up if you want to be tried in the Bahamas.
Hands up if you want to be tried in the Bahamas.
Image: Reuters/Jason R. Zalasky
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This item has been corrected.

The US State Department announced yesterday that it will send a senior official, Tom Kelly, to the Bahamas this coming week to formally strengthen bi-lateral cooperation on global counter-piracy efforts. This might seem a bit odd, seeing as Blackbeard and the other so-called Pirates of the Caribbean haven’t commandeered a ship for a couple of centuries.

However, the Bahamas is one of the top countries in the world for registering and flagging ships, along with such seafaring great powers as Panama, Liberia and the Marshall Islands. At least 50 million gross tonnes (the standard measurement) of ships around the world are flying the Bahamas flag, including the pirate-infested waters off Africa, making it the country with the world’s fifth-largest maritime presence (pdf, p. 12, and chart below). The Bahamas is especially popular because foreigners can hold direct title to a Bahamian vessel, and the Bahamas does not impose any tax on income, capital gains or similar financial revenues.

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And with the successful recent crackdown on pirates, especially off the coast of Somalia, the United States—as this year’s chair of the multinational Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia—is now seeking some longer-term solutions to the problem. At the top of the list: getting the big flag registry countries to become full partners in the global counter-piracy effort. “We are in a maintenance mode right now, past the crisis stage, and we certainly want flag states to exercise their sovereign responsibilities,’’ a State Department official speaking anonymously told Quartz.

The need for the Bahamas to do more became apparent in January 2012 when the MV Sunshine was raided by pirates in the Arabian Sea, and US commandos rescued the ship and captured 15 Somalis. The ship was Bahamian-flagged, but the Nassau government wasn’t prepared to arrest, prosecute and try the pirates. The men were ultimately convicted in the Seychelles, and Washington and Nassau have been working together ever since on a memorandum of understanding that will be signed next week. What’s in the document isn’t yet public, but it apparently includes non-binding (and very general) provisions for better consultation—and technical cooperation—so that the Bahamas is prepared to deal with the next boatful of pirates caught hijacking a Bahamian-owned or flagged ship.

The State Department official said Washington will now try to forge similar agreements with other countries, especially those that register and flag a lot of ships. That’s because such prosecutions can be extraordinarily time-consuming and expensive, and the Justice Department doesn’t want to prosecute as many as it has in recent years. “The Bahamas is not alone in this,”  the official said. “The laws of many countries are antiquated. For a long time, piracy had been a forgotten problem.”

Correction: A previous version of this article implied in the last paragraph that the US had been responsible for all pirate prosecutions in recent years; this was corrected.