CEI Offers Potential Solution to Pirate Problem

Congress Should Consider Empowering Private Action Against Thugs of the High Seas

Washington, D.C., April 9, 2009— News that Somali pirates had seized an American ship and, after being repelled, held her captain hostage drew a response from analysts at the Competitive Enterprise Institute: the United States should consider authorizing private parties to attack pirate ships under little used instruments called “letters of marque and reprisal.”

The letters, specifically authorized in the Article 1 section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, allow private parties to attack and seize the property of other parties that have committed violations of international law. Congress has the power to grant the letters. The United States made significant use of them during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 and never joined 19th Century treaties in which European nations forswore their use. The U.S. issued letters of marque to ships during the Spanish-American War of 1898; and a civilian operated airship, The Resolute, operated under a letter marque during World War II.  The letters also have a long history prior to the establishment of the United States. Elizabethan-era explorer and adventurer Sir Francis Drake operated under a letter of marque.

“The world has changed a lot since nations last made significant use of letters of marquee and reprisal. If Congress were to decide to issue them, it would certainly have to revisit the concept,” said CEI Senior Fellow Eli Lehrer. “It’s the type of free-market solution to a real problem that Congress should consider but hasn’t in any serious way.” Lehrer added.

CEI policy analyst Michelle Minton agreed. “American citizens have the right to defend themselves, regardless of their location,” said Minton. “If international governing bodies fail at the task, which repeated pirate attacks seem to indicate, the US government should do something,” she said. “Issuing letters of marque are one way to foster the protection of American citizens abroad without requiring an American military presence in foreign territory.”