THE twittering class buzzes about ‘private navies’ trying to solve the piracy problem. One arising is the outfitting of mercenary-crewed vessels with sufficient equipment to escort, detect, seek out and destroy [note the naval jargon] piratical miscreants wherever theymay bewitha species of vigilante-for-pay flotilla.
Erik Prince and his Xe—née-Blackwater- did not meet either his warrior or profit expectations in the business and withdrew. An insurance man is said to be assembling his tonnage, hiring his mercenaries and procuring his weaponry with a twist—if one uses his service, premiums for piracy cover do not increase.
We will see.
Now let us look carefully at a private navy and define terms. A navy is a sub-organisation of the government of a sovereign state. Its purpose is to express the political will of the sovereign at sea with the equipment at its disposal. In so doing, a navy has sovereign immunity. One can sue a navy for banging away at one’s village or using its commandos to blow up one’s fuel or weapons cache or mothership or skiff and the people on it.
However, the navy will say that it is sorry about your loss, but that it is an arm of a sovereign and while your suit is interesting, it is frankly on its face merely a small amusement. Navies are attracted to things called ‘targets’ and they tend to use controlled violence to deal with them — with both immunity and impunity.
Pirates, on the other hand, are seaside marauders, usually with vessels and arms, who plunder, steal, pillage, rapine and perform other such Viking-like acts at sea or ashore without sovereign protection. Hold on. Why are you picking on Vikings? Why not? Vikings fit the broad category of pirates and in England and France we certainly understand Vikings historically. Sovereign immunity was not applied then.
Little known, however, is how the Crown, in an effort to suppress piracies in the 16th century and to make a profit, muddled into a brilliant idea: Letters of Marque and Reprisal. It was brilliant because it allowed privateers, as pirates are also called, to violently attack the Spanish gold fleet in Central America at will, steal the gold, pay a huge dividend to the Crown (usually about 30%) and operate under sovereign immunity. It was a win-win-win, as we say.
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