In the great sweep of history piracy is best understood if it is seen as a normal state of affairs at sea, and the relative peace of the past hundred and fifty years as an intermission. Relative is perhaps the operative word, the world has never been entirely free of piracy; a friend recalled to me a story told to him by his father, a Royal Navy officer in the 1930s, who saw the pirates he had just captured beheaded, on the beach, by the Chinese authorities. Such attacks continued to be a problem in the South China Sea, and in the coastal waters of the Philippines and Indonesia, throughout the 20th century.
It is important to remember that the oceans, away from territorial waters, are essentially lawless; the sea is the territory of no country. The strict definition of piracy refers to hijacking and kidnapping on the high seas, outside the jurisdiction of any state. While it true that some international treaties and conventions govern the high seas, and some states claim extra-territorial powers, in the main piracy takes place in a lawless environment. For those used to the idea that laws govern every aspect of their lives this represents a strange and unsettling concept. There is also an interesting juxtaposition of the ideas of human rights and international law, and the reality of dealing with the inhabitants of territories like southern Somalia, whose judicial system is now very basic, where it operates at all. This is a dilemma which lacks any obvious solution, given that summary execution has gone out of fashion. Logically the nations of the world should agree to the extension of the jurisdiction of the International Court to deal with piracy, but this would be to greatly extend the authority of that body and many governments, including the American administration, would undoubtedly resist such a development.