Taiwan is no stranger to the threat posed by piracy at sea and the death of captain Wu Lai-yu (吳來于) last month during a gun battle between NATO and Somali pirates, who were keeping him captive on his ship, is a stark reminder of that reality.
Since the incident was made public, Taiwanese authorities and fishermen’s organizations have become increasingly vocal in their claims that US and NATO authorities have failed to provide a full account of what went wrong during the operation against the hijacked Jih Chun Tsai No. 68.
While it is perfectly reasonable for Wu’s family and Taiwanese authorities to expect answers on the matter, Wu’s accidental death should not be used to drive a wedge between Taipei and Washington, which it threatens to do as senior Taiwanese officials signal their impatience.
Unfortunate as Wu’s death may be, we should not forget that ultimately it was the Somali pirates, and not the officers on board the USS Stephen W. Groves or NATO members involved in counterpiracy efforts, who bear responsibility for his death. Had Somali pirates not broken international law and hijacked his vessel, Wu would be alive today, and no amount of finger pointing or proclamations of patience running short will resuscitate him.
A thorough account of what went wrong is necessary to prevent similar incidents in the future, but it will take time. Counterpiracy operations are in many ways small acts of war, and with every operation comes what is known as the “fog of war,” whereby clarity is assailed by the exigencies of life-and-death decisions made at great speed by fallible human beings.
It should also be noted that the more fantastic accounts of the kind of firepower allegedly used by the Stephen W. Groves during the operation have reached us courtesy of international organizations that not only are openly subjective in their stance vis-a-vis the US and NATO, but that also relied on the Somali pirates themselves. In other words, claims that US officers were “trigger happy” and used disproportionate force come from the very individuals who are making the high seas increasingly dangerous for maritime trade.
This is not to say that the pirates’ version of events should be discounted altogether, but to give equal weight to the claims by the two sides is disingenuous at best. While one side thrives on breaking the law and endangering the lives of law-abiding fishermen, merchant seamen and yachters, the other involves professionals who every day put their lives at risk to try and ensure safety on the seas.
As NATO and the US conduct their postmortem of the operation, we should bear in mind that officers operating under NATO command who are found to have broken the rules of engagement are bound to suffer the consequences; no such deterrent or guideline exists on the pirates’ side.
If Taipei really feels the need to point fingers and seek compensation for Wu’s family, it should direct its anger at those who are responsible for allowing countries such as Somalia to turn into failed states where piracy and terrorism thrive. Better yet, it should do its part to help the international community fix the very dysfunctionalities that undermine state stability and compel groups of individuals to break the law — and in the process endanger others — for their own survival.
Nobody is entirely blameless in this unfortunate incident, but to blame the NATO men and women who intervened on that fateful day for the captain’s death is most invidious.
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