Corporations conducting high-seas piracy in Somalia

November 23, 2013 

Prairie schooners transporting goods across the plains are attacked by savage Indians. The cavalry comes to the rescue and slaughters the "tribals." We all feel safe and proud of our forces.

Mutatis mutandi, that's the basic story of Captain Phillips starring Tom Hanks and the splendid Somali actor, Barkhad Abdl. The film spins a gripping account of the 2009 piracy of the container ship, Maersk Alabama, on the open seas.

The ship is waylaid by four Somali fishermen turned pirates. The Navy Seals are called in, kill the pirates and rescue the captain.

The inattentive will experience the simple catharsis afforded by such action thrillers. However, there is more to the true story, with much to tell about globalization, national sovereignty and the military-industrial complex.

The backstory of Captain Phillips demonstrates that we're living through an era of buccaneer business, where multinational corporations act like lawless pirates. They roam the globe and operate where they will, regardless of international law, territorial waters, national boundaries, environmental impact and the noxious effects their investments have on local populations.

Overfishing in Somalia by factory ships from Europe and the United States has left tribal fishermen without income. What fish escape the nets of the giant sea trollers have been poisoned by toxic waste flushed from container ships. Plummeting living standards, avoidable deaths from poverty and starvation are the predictable results.

This is where national sovereignty comes in. Without a coast guard, such practices have forced locals to form citizens' defense groups. Initially, they attacked the offending ships to drive them from Somalia's territorial waters. Though characterized as "pirates" by western media, such groups had strong local support.

Eventually, such "pirates" discovered that responding in kind to buccaneer businesses could itself replace lost revenue from fishing. Whether understood as such or not, "reparations" could in effect be seized by attacking ships on the open seas. There goods could be confiscated and hostages taken in return for large ransoms. Ensuing battles amounted to one highly financed buccaneer business competing against another more primitive, poorly financed counterpart.

Forget open seas, territorial waters or international boundaries. From the viewpoint of the "pirates," if such limitations did not apply to their competitors, neither did they apply to them.

Then comes the overwhelming response from the military-industrial complex. Giving the lie to right-wing claims of independence from government, Maersk Shipping calls in the Navy Seals to protect its operations. In the movie, the White House itself is involved. Seals are employed to enforce the law of the sea, the same law whose rejection by the big-time pirates and their protectors was the root cause of the small-time piracy in the first place.

Hollywood can no longer portray Indians as savages. And after all, the West has already been won, but the resources of Muslim tribals are still up for grabs.

Mike Rivage-Seul is the former professor of peace and social justice at Berea College. He blogs at

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