11. Lawlessness at Sea: A model of anarchy

July 27, 2015

Pubic Television and the New York Times have been running a series of articles  on the subject of The Lawless Sea, and The Atlantic Monthly recently ran a story entitled, “Anarchy at Sea” by William Langewiesche, discussing the complex and lawless nature of the shipping industry.

Here are some of the references:


Some 60,000 maritime corporations and countless individual owners routinely flout  the laws intended to provide safety at sea, contributing to the loss of two large ships per week, and the lives of some 6,000 seafarers annually.

A NYT editorial claims that,

“99 percent of the crimes committed at sea — everything from murder to kidnapping, slavery to thievery — go unprosecuted and barely noted, according to maritime experts.”

The article in Atlantic explains:

“No one pretends that a ship comes from the home port painted on its stern, or that it has ever been anywhere near it. Panama is the largest maritime nation on earth, and is followed by bloody Liberia, which hardly exists. No coastline is required either. There are ships that hail from La Paz, in landlocked Bolivia. There are ships that hail from the Mongolian desert. The registries themselves are rarely based in the countries whose name they carry: Panama is considered to be an old-fashioned “flag,” because its consulates collect the registration fees, but “Liberia” is run by a company in Virginia, “Cambodia” by another in South Korea, and the proud “Bahamas” by a group in the City of London. The system, generally known as “flags of convenience,” began around World War II, but its big expansion occurred only in the 1990s—and in direct reaction to an international attempt to impose controls.”

When at sea, the country to which the ship is flagged is the only one with jurisdiction over the vessel.  Only a very few ever exercise that jurisdiction.

Personally, I had indirectly been aware of many hundreds of episodes annually of serious piracy on the high seas, in the Straits of Mallacca, off the coast of Somalia, in the Med off North Africa and many other areas.  In 2009 my son worked as a helicopter pilot, shifting ammunition and food from U.S. Navy supply ships to warships from a coalition nations off the coast of Somalia, charged with preventing and interdicting piracy at sea.  For instance, he provided supplies to the ships depicted in the movie, “Captain Phillips”, the ones that rescued the skipper of the Maersk Alabama after its hijacking by Somali pirates.  While it was news to me, it was therefore not very surprising, that so much other crime at sea goes unreported and unpunished.

Given Steven Pinker’s thesis that violence in the world is in steady decline, even though human nature is not changing, violence at sea may constitute a highly illuminating exception to the general rule.  The situation on the world’s oceans may be considered in the context of some of the present controversies over borders and boundaries, and may stand as a warning to those who support anarchy or transnationalism.  The situation on the world’s oceans provide a cautionary tale for those who scoff at a continuing need for national sovereignty and sovereign borders.

The High Seas stand as an important example of the consequences of perfect anarchy and the absence of sovereign responsibility.

Pinkers book title, “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, suggests to me that the force which constrains the evil part of human nature lies in our collective behaviors and values: in our social mores and our laws.  From the perspective of a student of brain function, it is in our oxytocin-mediated collectivity that we seek the stability that encourages cooperation and commerce.  Whereas it is testosterone-mediated, gang-like behavior that visits violence upon us.

Which is why I become distressed when, for reasons of self-interest, factions pretend that sovereignty and sovereign borders are an outmoded and unnecessary relic of bygone times and prideful nationalistic ideologies.  One of the most defining prerogatives of sovereignty is to say who may enter one’s home or one’s nation, under what circumstances and in what numbers, and how much assimilation into the local culture is required.  When these sovereign constraints are violated the result is not immigration, the result is invasion.

Anyone may venture out onto the sea.  There is no government there.  There are no laws except those agreed to by all parties in treaties.  Therefore for those who do not voluntarily abide by laws, there simply are no enforceable laws.  As someone once said, a law without a sanction is merely advice.  For those on the sea, they only come into contact with law when they enter a port, and then only with regards to acts committed within the waters governed by the nation in which that port is situated.  With rare exception, the flagging county exerts no influence over its vessels or the companies who own them.

The lawlessness of the sea cautions us to be careful with our experiments in anarchy, and not to relinquish the sovereignty of the nation-state in favor of a world government until there actually is one, capable of maintaining order and security.

As Europe is discovering with the threatened collapse of the EU, already initiated by Greece’s refusal to abide by EU (Germany’s) sanctions, and its willingness to go into default and bankruptcy, international banking institutions do not yet constitute an effective world government, though they would like us to accept the myth that they do.

According to the NYT story, many of those who relied upon everyone just to “play nice” at sea are floating in the wake of the ships from which they were hurled.  Drat!  Not yet time to get rid of those pesky policemen.  Not yet time to let people move into your living room, bedroom, bathroom and kitchen just because they want to, or into your job market and benefits system just because it’s better than they one from which they are fleeing.

I see that in this week’s political news that some are no longer content to have morphed ‘illegal’ into ‘undocumented’, pretending that somehow sovereignty and the law are no longer important.  Now they leave off the adjective altogether and issue the false charge that their opponents are “against immigration”, pretending that there exists no distinction between piracy and a friendly visit at sea.  This, in my view, is sociopathic manipulation and should meet with righteous confrontation by honest and law-abiding people.