Friday, February 11, 2011

Piracy: Somali Pirates: Villains or Victims?

Source: ISS
Kisiangani Emmanuel, Senior Researcher,

African Conflict Prevention Programme,

ISS Pretoria Office

Piracy off the East coast of Africa has, increasingly, posed enormous challenges to international shipping and maritime services. It has damaged the littoral economies, undermined humanitarian aid and compelled an increase in shipping insurance premiums along one of the world`s most travelled routes. Defined by the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Law of the Sea as `any illegal acts of violence, detention or depredation committed outside territorial waters for private ends by crew or passengers of a private ship or aircraft against another ship, persons or crew,` piracy off the coast of Somalia has, in the recent past, increased in occurence and in the range of attacks. According to ECOTERRA International, a non-governmental organisation that also monitors the marine and maritime situation along the East African coast as well as the Gulf of Aden, at least 48 foreign vessels plus two barges with at least 808 hostages were being held by Somali pirates as of 08 February 2011. The international community has responded to this scourge through increased naval escorts and patrols. Piracy attacks have, however, continued to rise in the last four years. The question then is, how do pirates with small skiffs and cargo boats manage to attack big ships often thousands of kilometers away? At a very basic level, what are the factors that underline piracy and is the military response the best option?

From a historical perspective, piracy off the coast of Somalia has its roots in, among other factors, state failure, encroachment on Somali waters and the poor living conditions of the Somali population. The collapse of Somalia’s central state in 1991 created instability and security problems that undermined legitimate forms of production, including the fishing industry. Foreign trawlers reportedly using prohibited fishing equipment such as small mesh nets and sophisticated underwater lighting systems then started encroaching on the waters of Somalia, due to their high concentrations particularly of tuna fish. With time, Somalia`s unpatrolled waters also became a cost-free dumping ground for industrial toxic waste. Former fishermen, in an attempt to protect the country`s waters and resources from flotillas of external gunboats, or at least wage a campaign to `tax` them, started patrolling the Somali waters and engaging in sporadic attacks on foreign vessels. Over time, and with no alternative sources of livelihood, efforts to protect Somali waters were replaced by armed gangs that resorted to hijacking foreign trawlers for ransom. This criminal activity has since evolved not only in terms of magnitude but also in sophistication. It has grown into a multimillion-dollar industry, with gunmen demanding huge ransoms for the ships they seize. Pirates have progressively increased their capacity by abandoning their little boats for full-fledged cargo boats, and by using AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades instead of small weapons. They also now use Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and satellite phones, and it is suggested that they are plugged into an international network that feeds them with information from ports in the Gulf, Europe and Asia. If the failure of the Somali state provides the perfect environment for piracy, it is the payment of ransoms, running into millions of dollars, that provides the motivation. While payment of ransoms has probably exacerbated the situation, there appears to be little alternative as long as any intervention threatens the loss of ship equipment and the lives on board.

Faced with the possibility of a vital artery of the global economy being clotted by this criminal activity, the affected countries reacted with increasing military resolve. Currently, shipping sources estimate that about 20 naval escort ships from some 14 different nations are mostly concentrated in the Gulf of Aden, the gateway to the Suez Canal. The military response has, however, not been effective in eliminating piracy. The problem is that naval operations face a number of challenges, including covering a large area of operation (from the Red Sea in the Gulf of Aden to the Seychelles). The area is too large for a few dozen naval vessels with diverse interests to cover effectively. Moreover, pre-emptive action is significantly complicated by difficulties in distinguishing between pirates and fishing vessels. The military strategy also faces the challenge of enormous costs in maintaining fleets in the Indian Ocean. With these constraints, eliminating piracy seems a formidable task. The piracy situation has not been helped by the current status of international law either. Eugene Kontorovich observes that while international law provides useful legal provisions to apprehend and prosecute suspected pirates, a number of second-order international legal rules, norms, and expectations appear to be pulling in the opposite direction. He gives the examples of international rules which make extradition, detention and prosecution so costly that setting pirates loose seems preferable. Then there are the logistical problems of finding and transporting witnesses and moreover, the instances where Western countries have captured pirates yet lack the proper laws on their books to prosecute them. Two recent cases of pirates captured by the governments of The Netherlands and South Korea are instructive. In both cases pirates apparently expressed willingness to serve long prison sentences because ‘prison life with a flushable toilet and three meals a day was utopia to them’. Indeed, prosecuting Somali pirates has left the International community confused over the laws governing armed conflict and human rights. This, as some have argued, is because Somali pirates fall in the grey area between military combatants and civilians.

In short, piracy will persist as long as the state of Somalia, with its lawlessness, poverty and lack of alternative sources of livelihood sits next to a rich trading route. A solution based on military force will not address the underlying sources of the problem as there will always be young people willing to risk their lives in anticipation of large ransom returns. The risks associated with piracy are seen by Somali pirates as no worse than those faced every day. While military deterrence measures are understandable in the short-term, they will do little to eliminate piracy in the long-term unless there is comprehensive effort to establish a functioning state in Somalia that can reasonably control its territory and provide decent standards of living for its population.