Why you need to read The Outlaw Ocean

This morning, The New York Times published the fourth installment of The Outlaw Ocean —a wide-ranging investigation into murder, exploitation, criminal pollution of waterways, and illegal fishing across our tragedy-ridden commons: the high seas.

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This post was updated on July 30, 2015.
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This morning, The New York Times published the fourth installment of The Outlaw Ocean —a wide-ranging investigation into murder, exploitation, criminal pollution of waterways, and illegal fishing across our tragedy-ridden commons: the high seas.

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Ian Urbina, a member of the Times’ investigations unit, has crafted some exhaustively documented stories covering everything from stowaways to the difficulties associated with monitoring international waters.

Roughly 2,000 stowaways are caught each year hiding on ships. Hundreds of thousands more are sea migrants, whose journey involves some level of complicity from the ship’s crew.

If able to stay concealed, these individuals —forced or incentivized to take such risks— fall prey to chance and circumstance.

Refrigerated fishing holds become cold, exhaust pipes heat up, shipping containers are sealed and fumigated. Maritime newsletters and shipping insurance reports offer a macabre accounting of the victims: “Crushed in the chain locker,” “asphyxiated by bunker fumes,” “found under a retracted anchor.” Most often, though, death comes slower. Vomiting from seasickness leads to dehydration. People pass out from exhaustion. They starve.

But stowaways found aboard, far beyond the territorial markers of individual countries, become mere data points and, like other crew members, are subject to the rise and fall of the market: of buyers and sellers in marginal industries, of captains trying to squeeze out the barest of profits.

According to the Times’s investigation, these men often become obstacles to be disposed of by whatever means most convenient.

Murders regularly occur offshore — thousands of seafarers, fishermen or sea migrants die under suspicious circumstances annually, maritime officials say — but culprits are rarely held accountable.

These murders can be documented —even videotaped— but accountability drowns in the same ice-cold waters.

“Summary execution, vigilantism, overzealous defense, call it what you will,” said Klaus Luhta, a lawyer with the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots, a seafarers’ union. “This boils down just the same to a case of murder at sea and a question of why it’s allowed to happen.”

But the answer is as unsatisfying as the explanation is frustrating. Urbina writes:

Though the global economy is ever more dependent on a fleet of more than four million fishing and small cargo vessels and 100,000 large merchant ships that haul about 90 percent of the world’s goods, today’s maritime laws have hardly more teeth than they did centuries ago when history’s great empires first explored the oceans’ farthest reaches.

But these sea-based industries require bodies and their labor. Urbina tracks this rise to ‘sea slaves’ in the heart of southeast Asia:

While forced labor exists throughout the world, nowhere is the problem more pronounced than here in the South China Sea, especially in the Thai fishing fleet, which faces an annual shortage of about 50,000 mariners, based on United Nations estimates. The shortfall is primarily filled by using migrants, mostly from Cambodia and Myanmar.

And:

While United Nations pacts and various human rights protections prohibit forced labor, the Thai military and law enforcement authorities do little to counter misconduct on the high seas.

Into this void, however, creep private (and independently funded) organizations trying to carve off and address these persistent issues —seemingly beyond the current reach (or interests) of individual governments.  Thus, in their final segment, the Times retells the story of the Sea Shepard vigilante crews, who stalked one of the ocean’s worst offenders across 10,000 miles of ocean for 110 days.

In an epic game of cat-and-mouse, the ships maneuvered through an obstacle course of giant ice floes, endured a cyclone-like storm, faced clashes between opposing crews and nearly collided in what became the longest pursuit of an illegal fishing vessel in history.

While the pursuit culminated in the sinking of the fugitive ship, the article’s conclusion —in which the author hints the ship could have been intentionally scuttled, carrying evidence of its crimes to the ocean’s floor— leaves readers with the image of a defiant captain, his fist raised, as his infamous vessel dips below the waves.

This short summary is not —and should not— supplement for reading these stories. Urbina’s lengthy investigation isn’t is not intended as an ending, but as a beginning:

There is much at stake: A melting Arctic has expanded trade routes. Evolving technology has opened the deep seabed to new mining and drilling. Maritime rivalry and piracy have led to more violent clashes. And, with an ever more borderless economy, sea commerce is vital to many countries. “Without ships, half of the world would freeze and the other half would starve,” Rose George, a British nautical writer, said.

A hallmark of journalism committed properly is its ability to hook a reader, reeling them into a world that is both distant and inextricably connected to their everyday life. This series accomplishes just that.


Update: Ian Urbina joined the team at Longform to discuss his project, The Outlaw Ocean. You can by clicking the Longform icon below. (One of many gems to be discovered on the Longform site

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Exceptionally American: The uncomfortable relationship with human rights

On Thursday, the Obama administration asserted the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights did not extend to military and intelligence officials working abroad. By repeating a script well-rehearsed by former presidents Bush and Clinton, Obama endorsed the very sentiment that has led to military abuses in the past.

When he was found by officers of the Canadian military, Shidane Abukar Arone —a Somali citizen— said he was searching for a lost child. It was 1993 and Arone’s country was broken by famine and conflict —circumstances that would lead, seven months later, to a botched U.S. military operation and the deaths of 18 Delta Force rangers.

Detained on suspicion of trespassing, Arone was taken into custody on the evening of March 16, 1993. Sometime that evening, allegedly uttering the words “Canada, Canada, Canada,” Arone succumbed to grievous injuries sustained at the hands of the Canadian military. In the hours prior to Arone’s death, members of a highly-trained commando team subjected him to senseless beatings and, while restrained, sexual abuse. One of the team members, Master Cpl. Giasson, found the badly-beaten detainee semi-conscious and bleeding. “In Canada we cannot do this,” he told a fellow officer. “But here…”

“The Somali Affair” was one of Canada’s most embarrassing and deplorable cases of detainee abuse. From My Lai to Abu Ghraib, however, these stories are disturbingly (historically) common. With such a somber backdrop, yesterday’s US declaration on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is even more damning.

The treaty was designed to extend human rights responsibilities (and protections) to a country’s military and intelligence forces stationed overseas. Previously, both the Clinton and Bush administrations rejected the UN’s interpretation of the treaty’s scope, claiming the covenant only applied to US territories under formal jurisdiction. Yesterday in Geneva, the Obama administration agreed.

Intended to ban arbitrary killings, torture, unfair trials and imprisonments without judicial review, the treaty  —ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1992— continues to create tension between legal advisors who say ignoring global implications of the treaty is  “not legally tenable” and military officers who say the treaty will complicate future U.S. military operations.

The military argument, now, is party line: The United States has too many responsibilities abroad to be subject to such restrictions. Full stop. For others, the treaty is simply unnecessary as American moral fiber remains superior to any document canonized by the United Nations. (This is, I’m afraid, the legacy of American Exceptionalism in a post-9/11 world). But proposing that a military’s expansive scope should be met with the shrinking of its responsibility seems inexcusable. And presuming protection will be guaranteed by enlightened leadership is a most dangerous game.

These positions ignore what we —the public— already know about the military at war and under stress: Traumatic environments alter one’s views of what is right, wrong, and the grey area between. The acts captured in Abu Ghraib’s debasing pictures —taken by men and women who willingly degraded the value of human life— were imagined by Americans committed to their country’s cause. The “War on Terror” carved lines into Middle Eastern sand that eventually obscured the boundaries drawn by law. Sure, there was a failure in leadership, and individual decisions are never a reflection of one’s environment alone, but the soldier’s willingness to take part in abuse is born out of the very fraternity needed to stay alive far from home.

In the end, social psychology might be a blunt tool to explain, exactly, why one Canadian soldier burned Mr. Arone’s genitals with lighted cigarettes. But research does explain why people, who would otherwise object to such treatment, or intervene against such acts, decided —in these cases— not to. That’s why yesterday’s decision by US officials serves as the highest order abdication of responsibility  —it echoes the twisted logic of permissibility: “not at home, but here…” And that, of course, is particularly exceptional.

Taking Attendance: Class in America

It is this hopelessness of inequality —the acquiescence to classism— that debate ends all together

An Oxford professor is meeting an American former graduate student and asking him what he’s working on these days. “My thesis is on the survival of the class system in the United States.” “Oh really, that’s interesting: one didn’t think there was a class system in the United States.” “Nobody does. That’s how it survives.” – Recounted by Christopher Hitchens in this memoir Hitch-22.

What does inequality look like in America? It doesn’t take long to find out. In fact, if you were to ask most citizens to describe the divide between the have and have-nots, few would have trouble providing examples. And yet, as pointed out by Margaret Talbot in today’s Daily Comment for The New Yorker, the discussion of class division in America’s current age of the extremes is often ignored.

However, for the “compromise President” [note: I use the title in a intellectually supportive tone, conscious of President Obama’s belief that government shouldn’t suffer the throes of faction currently witnessed between the elephants and donkeys] it might be time to, as one of blog’s commentators said it, “Stop running and start arguing! Start challenging! Start screaming at the top of your lungs!”

While economic prognostication is not my forte, I do know that growing inequality complicates everything from the education, to the availability of health care and the relevance of politics for addressing the conflicts of either, and all, of the most important spheres. Worse, inequality, when entrenched, segments societies into factions that can only make decisions in their interests. And why not? The system certainly won’t look out for them. But it is this hopelessness of inequality —the acquiescence to classism— that debate ends all together. And that is a stasis neither the Republicans or the Democrats can, or should, consent to.