I can hear the chants of “Kill the pirates!” already. No, not in response to the sole surviving Somali teenager facing trial in the United States for attempting to hijack a U.S. ship the other week — though I don’t expect his mother’s appeal for clemency will find a very receptive audience from the take-no-prisoners crowd. Rather, if mainstream commentators are already explicitly calling for summary executions of pirates, I don’t expect the latest chapters in the piracy justice chronicles to endear many to a more nuanced legal position.

Over the weekend, NATO enjoyed two successes in its anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden, foiling an attempted hijacking of a Norwegian tanker and rescuing 20 Yemenis who had apparently been impressed into piracy as hostages. Yet the bottom line that I worry some will take out of these successes is what happened next: the pirates were released. Lacking legal jurisdiction — in the latter case, neither the pirates, the victims, nor the waters were Dutch, as the ship’s commander rather unhelpfully pointed out — and without a NATO policy on how to detain the pirates, they could not be arrested.

That there is no standing NATO policy on pirate detainment is troubling, but it is not insurmountable. This is a relatively new scenario that NATO finds itself in (Barbary piracy aside, please — I don’t think Jefferson’s escapades in the 1800’s count as a fair argument in favor of unilateralism here), and it is certainly no reason to regress back to a “walk the plank” solution. The UN has brokered extradition accords with Kenya, and more countries, as well as international organizations like NATO, will assuredly do the same in the near future.

As for the pirate on trial in New York — he should probably be glad he’s being tried by the American justice system, not by those who probably would rather the SEALs have just taken him out too.

(image from flickr user ClownBog under a Creative Commons license)

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