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Why are pirates pardoned?

In July 2019, the President of Somaliland, Musa Bihi Abdi issued a presidential pardon to 19 Somalis convicted of piracy in Seychelles. The men had all been transferred to Somaliland to serve out their prison terms there. Little explanation was given, only that President Abdi had decided Somaliland would join the coalition preventing piracy in Somalia’s territorial waters.

In the days of privateering (that is, the 500 centuries up until the mid-19thcentury) pardoning pirates was a common practice. After all, the only difference between privateers and pirates operated was whether a nation was at war or not. The short periods of peace between European wars of the 17thand 18th century meant many pirates accepted commissions to be privateers once a new war broke out. Pirates were highly skilled at what they did and sovereigns needed to harness this expertise to fight their wars at sea. The legendary pirate Blackbeard is a prime example of this scenario.

Pardons were also used as a tool of suppression. In an effort to combat Caribbean piracy, King George I offered a pardon to all pirates who surrendered before 5 September 1718 for all piracy offences, including murder.[1] The increased potential for capture and the absence of adverse consequences for accepting the pardon saw several competent pirate captains choose to leave the trade with several hundred of their men.

Alexander Hamilton argued in favour of pardoning power in the US Constitution. There was quite strong resistance to the idea because American colonists had suffered through a bitter legacy of rampant misuse of pardoning power by a succession of British sovereigns. Hamilton argued a pardon was an instrument of law enforcement that needed to be wielded effectively so the government could sufficiently execute its laws, rather than a source of power from a ruler.[2] As Hamilton predicted, the first Presidents all used pardons to ‘restore tranquillity to the commonwealth’.[3]Pardons were granted to rebels and deserters as an effective signal that war was truly over and that peace was restored. The most famous pardon for a pirate was James Monroe’s pardon to Jean Lafitte, his brother Pierre, and the ragtag group of their followers who had helped Andrew Jackson defend New Orleans from the British in 1814.[4]

Somali leaders have a complex relationship with their piracy history, much like the European rulers of the 17thand 18th centuries did. Instead of seafaring expertise, Somalia’s former pirates have wealth (by Somali standards) that grants them respect and political influence within the community. Keeping the peace in Somalia is no easy task and pardoning the few people with useful resources is perhaps a way to avoid another round of the clan-based political issues and conflicts that plague Somalia. For President Abdi, these pirates were most likely not Somalilanders. So the pardons are a way to maintain his authority in the bitter dispute between Somaliland and Somalia over Somaliland’s sovereignty.

The international community may frown on the use of pardon by Somali leaders but they need only look at their own pasts to gain some understanding of why they are using them.

  1. [1] Earle, Peter, The Pirate Wars(London, UK: Methuen Publishing, 2003), 204. [2] Moore, Kathleen Dean, Pardons: Justice, Mercy, and the Public Interest (London: Oxford University Press, 1997), 25. [3] Ibid., 51. [4]For a detailed account, see Groom, Winston, Patriotic Fire: Andrew Jackson and Jean Laffite at the Battle of New Orleans (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2006).

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