Comments: Negotiators And Snipers: On Strategies For Managing Piracy On The High Seas---And Elsewhere

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Debra , Portland/Beaverton OR   05/22/09
the risk of the perception that negotiation is merely a pretext. . .
I've posted a few comments to this article, but never addressed the gist of it: the potential risk to the concept and practice of good-faith negotiation if negotiation is perceived as nothing more than a set-up to get the snipers into place. I agree entirely with Mr. Benjamin's concerns in this regard and wonder if, at the time, anyone directly involved weighed these concerns as the situation was unfolding.

Bill  Ryan     05/22/09
An excellent analysis, clearly stated. And, a good warning! As a community mediator, I've seen some volatile situations resolved peacefully through mediation with disputants who initially said, "This won't work because . . . ." When it does, those who have been outside observers still don't believe it'll work. They seem to like the drama and want it to continue. Is our culture so callous that many don't want peaceful resolution to conflict?

Debra , Portland OR   05/18/09
Hmmm. . . I refer to the definition of legitimate as meaning based on logical reasoning; reasonable. I consider a conflict involving the distribution of scarce resources to be legitimate in this sense. I'm deliberately choosing to view this from the perspective of a conflict of needs and interests rather than a conflict of legal rights. Your point is well taken regarding how the conflict is portrayed. My previous comment was my attempt to suggest another side to the story. . .a side that may or may not be real, and/or may or may not have been heard. I have difficulty distilling this to a point of either legal or moral right or wrong. I see people, on whichever side, trying to meet basic needs. Somewhere along the line, something hasn't been heard. Thanks for your comments, Wallace.

Wallace , Harrisburg OR   05/18/09
If by a "legitimate conflict involving scarce resources" you mean fishing rights, that is a subject for negotiation and mediation. Again, one party would have to be that which does not exist--a functioning government in Somalia. (I would suggest, however, that the adjective 'legitimate' may not be the best to describe such conflicts. I'd suggest either legal or economic.) The other subject that might be subject to fruitful discussion is how the media portrays the events and conditions. Before we portray the situation as one in which "the less powerful attempt to react with power" we should establish not our version of their conditions and motivations, but we should understand who they are in their own society. The resources at their disposal suggest they are not the powerless poor. Piracy and kidnapping do not lend themselves to mediation, for the reason I gave initially--they are crimes in process.

Debra , Beaverton OR   05/18/09
unsettling. . .
It's interesting to me that a legitimate conflict involving scarce resources can be so highly manipulated by those with power. Ignore, evade, provide lip service until the less powerful attempt to react with power. . .then shade the whole matter as a vile criminal act without justification in any imaginable arena with the understanding that when it comes to good vs. evil, shades of gray can't exist.

Wallace , Harrisburg OR   05/18/09
Managing Piracy
When Debra asks where is the dialogue, it seems to me the answer is that dialogue and mediation are voluntary. There is no effective government in Somalia that can choose mediation or that is even equipped to engage in civil discussion. Even if one assumes that the pirates are driven by desperation, they are unable to carry on meaningful negotiations or mediation because they have no power to uphold their part of an agreement. I.e. any conceivable agreement would be unenforceable. Any benefits that they might receive to motivate them, would be taken away by the more powerful in their society. They are pirates largely because they live in a pirate society. That said, one might note that among the hundreds of millions of the world's poor, only these few have opted for piracy and the use of force. This indicates that the desperation of poverty is not the main motivator. Opportunity comes first. Reinforcement by lowering their risks comes second. Then the opportunity becomes seductive. A number or international organizations could host negotiations or sponsor mediation if either were possible or realistic.

Kent , Chicago IL   05/18/09
... the media and "they"...
Agreed, the media (and most Americans) like "sizzle" and ideology and "slam bang"." What is really going on, the nuts and bolts, are pretty dull and don't draw much attention.

Debra , Beaverton OR   05/18/09
more ignorance. . .
Hi, Kent. I'm definitely am aware of these issues you describe - but, I feel this information was down-played in the media. Certainly, hostage-taking by villanous pirates was more interesting? My concerns are more specific: 1) Why weren't the needs and interests of the Somalia fishermen sincerely addressed before the resort to piracy? (What do people do when they're not being heard?) and 2) Where is the dialogue now? Is it happening? Is there a collaborative effort out there somewhere to address this conflict of scarce resources? Thanks for your comment.

Kent , Chicago IL   05/18/09
Maybe you should have paid attention to the comments made by the commanding Admiral in the Horn of Africa on the day of the shooting. He rather pointedly indicated the underlying problems of (1) the government of the failed state there not controlling its territorial waters - against pirates AND illegal fishing by large international fishing boats which (2) virtually eliminated the livelihood of the Somalia fishermen, who turned to this method of supporting their families. That being said, when faced by the reality of the piracy, you really do have to act decisively to establish piracy as not a viable alternative.

Debra , Beaverton OR   05/18/09
Blissfully ignorant?
I'm apparently a naive, ignorant "let's dig deeper" kind of person who believes that empathy along with an understanding of needs and interests can make a significant difference in the outcome of any conflict. Simplistic - I know. I heard almost nothing in the media during this recent ordeal about what was motivating the conduct of the Somali pirates. The primary need was to paint them as monsters in the usual battle of good vs. evil - a mindset where the only acceptable outcome is victory over evil. Where is the dialogue about why this happened?

Gary    05/14/09
Unfortunately your biases are showing through. I'm not sure when the death of a economically driven pirate became an "assassination."

Wallace , Harrisburg OR   05/13/09
Hostage negotiation and mediation
Hostage negotiation has little to do with classic mediation. Robert Benjamin bases much of his argument on several false premises. Both parties in hostage negotiation understand that talk is in lieu of waiting and ready force which will almost certainly be applied in the event of failure or likely failure of talking. Hostage takers understand they have very limited options when dealing with a power committed to the rule of law. Unfortunately that understanding may have been diluted or obscured by the widespread willingness of other nations to pay ransom for hostages. Also, the pirates in the Maerske case may have been too young to know that the US, unlike many other nations whose ships were hijacked and crews held hostage, has a policy of not paying ransom to criminals. If so, the fact is no more significant than any criminal's ignorance of court sentencing policies. Benjamin's comparison of this situation to other hijackings is also inaccurate. To argue that other hostages had not been harmed, is to confuse situations where the hostage takers had the position of advantage and several major bargaining chips. As far as I know, in all other cases the hostage takers had control of a captured ship and crew. In this case the US Navy had control of the hijacker's boat and mobility. It's possible, as Benjamin suggests, that the pirates "apparently understand that hurting a hostage is not ‘good business.’" These pirates, however, had no business left to do except bargain their lives for the captain's. The hijackers had only one bargaining chip--the captain's life. Since one of their number had already surrendered and had not been killed, they obviously understood that they could save their lives in the same manner. They discarded this option. The only acceptable alternative to surrender or the use of force was to let the pirates go in exchange for the captain. President Obama apparently decided thatif even the United States submitted to kidnapping and extortion,this option would result in ever greater piracy. Much more is at stake than "extracting money from shipping companies". Given the very lucrative risk-reward ratio already established in favor of piracy by almost all other nations readily paying ransom, a US capitulation would have all but legitimized piracy and kidnapping and soon murder on the high seas. Hostage negotiations do not or should not share the open ended, anything's-possible nature of most mediation. Hostage negotiations almost always take place between people engaged in ongoing criminal acts and law enforcement people trying to save an innocent third party. Negotiating with criminals should never include an option for rewards or putting more people at risk of becoming victims.

Kent Lawrence, Chicago IL     05/13/09
Negotiated Kills
Nice article, well articulated points. I still believe, good shots. There are, however, other issues not discussed by anyone. I believe the administration mishandled the matter (despite the results) as follows: (1) The public should never have allowed to get the blow by blow of the event as it transpired. It was a "need to know" situation and and the details of the negotiation/positioning you write about should never have gotten out (and with proper military secrecy could be prevented - the story of the "survivor" not withstanding). (2) The President never should have given any order at all. It should have been left to the Captain's broad discretion, and not to be second guessed if it had gone bad.

Steve , Federal Way WA   05/13/09
Negotiation and Piracy
Sorry Robert but I don't think that negotiation is ever a satisfactory tool in piracy and hostage taking except to buy time for snipers or other rescue teams to get into place. Yes this does make any sembelence of negotiation disengenuous (in this circumstance) but engaging in negotiation implies that the other "side" has legitimate grieviences that can be accomodated. Sometimes when you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Negotiation, as I understand it, may provide short term results and sometimes less violent results but it only encourages further instances in the future. I subscribe to the unpopular adage that "We do not negotiate with terrorists" Negotiation is great when both sides have legitimate interests that can be accomodated and one side is not engaged in kidnapping, terror, murder and piracy.

Luis Miguel Diaz , Juarez, Mexico     05/12/09
Congratulations, what a good article you wrote about the Maersk Alabama case. Your orderly and balanced approach raises issues that no other articles commenting the case even mention. You saw real unwanted effects for amicable solution of complex conflicts in the future. Your composition is an excellent source for Ethics, to be mostly read by policy makers, including President Obama.