A story about piracy. Like, REAL piracy.

A Boulder-area think tank is taking on the world’s nastiest pirates. Pull up a jug ‘o rum and read on. From the September 2010 issue of Denver Magazine.

Revenge of the Landlubbers
By Stewart Schley

Admit it: You’ve got a thing for pirates. One glimpse of Johnny Depp in eyeliner and billowing knickers and you were a goner. We get it. What’s not to like about a badass roustabout storming vessels belonging to capitalistic profiteers with a parrot clenching his shoulder and a bad hangover rattling about in his brain?

Conversely, any look at maritime piracy — the real kind, with harrowing violence and million-dollar ransoms — is enough to shatter our pirate fantasies. And ironically, far from the nearest ocean, the Colorado-based One Earth Future (OEF) Foundation is leading the war against it. OEF is a think tank bankrolled by a former yogurt maven, fueled by some serious intellectual firepower, and fighting pirates from the most unlikely of places: a nondescript office building off McCaslin Boulevard and Highway 36 in Louisville.

And Somali bad guys should take note. They may be able to evade the occasional U.S. Navy peacekeeping ship, but they haven’t yet come up against Boulder’s Bob Haywood. (Imagine the late Brian Keith — Uncle Bill from TV’s Family Affair — with the brainpower of a supercomputer.) His father was a top scientist during WWII at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Haywood read Churchill’s six-volume The Second World War in elementary school — for fun. He was a key advisor to the Clinton administration on the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords in 1993. Until 2008, he ran the United Nations’ World Economic Processing Zones Association, advising developing nations on international trade policies while racking up frequent-flyer miles like mad. Now, Haywood sets the strategy and develops research projects for OEF as its executive director and chief vision officer.

Steps Toward World Peace

A peace-minded venture staffed by a handful of young research specialists, the nonprofit OEF was founded by Marcel Arsenault, the Colorado real estate investor who sold his Mountain High Yoghurt to Beatrice Foods for $1.5 million in 1983. Arsenault met Haywood 20 years ago when both served on the board of the Colorado-based nonprofit Arc Thrift Stores. He contacted Haywood in 2008, looking for help identifying areas where OEF might take steps toward achieving its mission of inspiring world peace. Haywood began consulting for OEF in September 2008, and joined the staff two months later.

Last spring, Haywood zeroed in on the rising problem of maritime piracy as an ideal attack point. The captain of the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama had just undergone a dramatic rescue off the coast of Somalia, and pirates were in the news. The piracy problem encapsulated exactly what One Earth Future was set up to help do: achieve peaceful resolutions to international conflicts. OEF labeled its piracy research and advisory effort — the first significant work to be undertaken by the foundation — “Oceans Beyond Piracy.”

Proof of Intent the Key

Haywood, who had visited Somalia while working for the United Nations, recognized the failings of prevailing maritime laws and treaties. Erasing piracy worldwide is hobbled by a complicated grab bag of conflicting national laws, jurisdictional un-certainties, and in some cases, a lack of political will. But for Haywood, who studied physics as an undergraduate before he earned a Harvard MBA, “complicated” simply means somebody hasn’t figured it out yet. Immersing himself in the subject, Haywood seized on a fundamental realization: By the time a ship is under attack, it’s too late to do much of anything. “You’ve got 10 or 15 crew members defending 2,000 feet of waterline, and six boats attacking you,” he says.

But Haywood also uncovered an archaic feature of 19th-century maritime law. Back then, it was possible to prevent suspected slave ships from setting sail by discovering proof of intent, such as shackles and handcuffs aboard ships. Haywood believes those same legal principles can be used today to seize pirate ships that are tricked out with ladders, hooks, and heavy weaponry commonly used to take over preyed-upon vessels. “We don’t have to wait until the boat’s attacked,” he says.

The State Department seems to be listening. Assistant Secretary Andrew Shapiro, in a speech earlier this year at American University, picked up on Haywood’s theme, suggesting that “perhaps states could agree that the mere possession of certain ladders, grappling hooks, and certain armaments at sea in an area known to be a high-risk area for piracy attacks should be sufficient to establish intent to commit an act of piracy.”

Haywood thinks it will take years before a new international treaty can be negotiated to help suppress the piracy problem. But he says it’s realistic to expect that, within a year, existing tribunals could recognize the legitimacy of using suspect equipment as proof of intent to commit the crime. That could help upend what’s now a high-reward, low-risk equation that makes pirating attractive to impoverished Somalis and others in piracy-prone areas of the world, from Bangladesh to Nigeria to Indonesia.