Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Do Norms Matter?

IR bloggers are taking an interest in the ongoing saga of the Somali pirates who have hijacked a Ukranian ship and are demanding millions of dollars (20 at last count) in return. The pirates (I can't get over how old-school the whole concept of pirates seems- blame Johnny Depp) gave an interview to the NYT.

In it they employ some arguments that should be of interest to all of us who argue that discourse is a good gauge of the salience of particular international norms. For instance,
We don’t consider ourselves sea bandits,” he said. “We consider sea bandits those who illegally fish in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas. We are simply patrolling our seas. Think of us like a coast guard.”

The Somali pirates are using arguments that appeal to our sense of justice in several ways - comparing themselves to legitimate law enforcers such as the coast guard and behaviors such as 'patrolling', appealing to our environmental concerns, and contesting language that is pejorative.

Yet, they are holding the Ukranian ship and its crew hostage and are demanding a ransom that is incommuserate with their stated reasons for wanting money.

“Killing is not in our plans,” he said. “We only want money so we can protect ourselves from hunger.”

When asked why the pirates needed $20 million to protect themselves from hunger, Mr. Sugule laughed and said, “Because we have a lot of men.”

So this begs the question, what use is it to know that actors acknowledge or (instrumentally) appeal to international norms? In the blogs I've read, the consensus seems to be that this is a case of insincere rhetoric, because it is belied by the actions of the pirates.

How, then, should we interpret the desire of the pirates to be seen as legitimate human beings? Should this guide the way the situation is handled? For instance, if the pirates said that they wanted the money to buy rum, eye patches and sail the high seas- would the ship have been stormed by now? If the pirates subscribed to a set of norms that were even less palatable, how would it effect responses?

These are the difficulties in thinking about how norms work in real life. It's a much bandied about term but it leaves us with little substance with which to think about how to formulate policy in crises.

I'm trying to grapple with these questions in my own work, so no real answers...just thinking aloud.

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