Thursday, December 3, 2009

Pirates of the Gulf of Aden

Imagine you’re the leader of a country, and another country wants to build a pipeline across your soil to get oil to the sea. Do let them do it for free, or do you demand a cut of the oil revenues? I’m betting that most of us would expect to get some piece of the action.

Now imagine that you’re the leader of a non-state entity that has de facto, though tenuous and extralegal, control of a body of water that happens to be an important trade route. If you demand payment for safe passage, are you more morally repugnant than is the government leader in the previous example? If so, why? Both are cases of rent-seeking, where a party tries to extract value without adding any value.

You might say that the leader of the country in the first example is within her legal rights under international law. This is a distinction between the two examples. However, some would argue that international law has a weak claim to legitimacy, since it has been crafted by powerful nations who have sought to codify their own interests.

You might argue that the leader of a country possesses standing to impose limits on regional activity, and that the leader of a pirate coalition does not. But, do the monarchies and dictatorships in the region of the horn of Africa truly have greater legitimacy than do the people who currently provide police and other public services within eastern Somalia?

OK, I’ll admit that the argument that international law legitimizes control of agreed borders, and that the pirate activity in the Gulf of Aden undermines the rule of law, is a compelling one. But how about rent-seeking? Is it any more desirable from a state actor than from pirates, assuming that either way it’s backed up with threat of force?

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