Efforts to Confront Piracy Continue

Stephen DeAngelis

September 18, 2009

I first wrote about piracy last December in a post entitled The Return of the Pirates. In that post, I discussed the fact that Somalia has become the primary focus of those attempting to rid the seas of the scourge of piracy. The capital of piracy in Somalia is Eyl. And the kings of Eyl are the pirates. There is a lot of money to be made through piracy and there are plenty of people anxious to get their cut [“Life in Somalia’s pirate town,” by Mary Harper, BBC News, 18 September 2008]. Harper describes what happens in Eyl “whenever word comes out that pirates have taken yet another ship.”

“There is a great rush to the port of Eyl, where most of the hijacked vessels are kept by the well-armed pirate gangs. People put on ties and smart clothes. They arrive in land cruisers with their laptops, one saying he is the pirates’ accountant, another that he is their chief negotiator. … In Eyl, there is a lot of money to be made, and everybody is anxious for a cut.”

Harper reports that the number of Eyl residents who are actual pirates is relatively small. The supporting cast for piracy operations, however, is much larger. As a result, piracy ” has become a mainstay of the Puntland economy. Eyl has become a town tailor-made for pirates – and their hostages. Special restaurants have even been set up to prepare food for the crews of the hijacked ships.” According to Harper, the entire area is bustling.

“The town is a safe-haven where very little is done to stop the pirates – leading to the suggestion that some, at least, in the Puntland administration and beyond have links with them. Many of them come from the same clan – the Majarteen clan of the president of Somalia’s transitional federal government, Abdullahi Yusuf. The coastal region of Puntland is booming. Fancy houses are being built, expensive cars are being bought – all of this in a country that has not had a functioning central government for nearly 20 years. Observers say pirates made about $30m from ransom payments last year – far more than the annual budget of Puntland, which is about $20m. … Now that they are making so much money, these 21st Century pirates can afford increasingly sophisticated weapons and speedboats. This means that unless more is done to stop them, they will continue to plunder the busy shipping lanes through the Gulf of Aden. They even target ships carrying aid to feed their compatriots – up to a third of the population.”

Based on Harper’s description of a booming pirate town, one would expect to Eyl to be a bustling metropolis with rising buildings, paved roads, and fancy stores. As the attached video demonstrates, however, most of the wealth is bypassing average citizens who are still trying to make a living off of stony ground and scarce resources. Wherever the money is being spent and the fancy houses are being built, it’s certainly not in downtown Eyl.

Although the waters near Somalia are the primary focus of the international community, piracy is not just a problem in that region of the world. Piracy has hotspots in a number of places and has more than doubled this year.

According to The Economist, some countries are treating pirates too leniently and such behavior is sending the wrong signals to pirates [“Wrong signals,” 9 May 2009 print issue].

“The requirement to fight piracy is one of the oldest bits of international law. The idea that any country may take action against pirates is the precursor to the idea of ‘universal jurisdiction’ used to prosecute heinous crimes such as genocide. In Latin legalese, pirates are termed hostis humani generis (an ‘enemy of mankind’). Moreover, the UN’s Convention on the Law of the Sea stretches the definition to include crewing a pirate ship and inciting or ‘intentionally facilitating’ attacks. Surely sailing with RPGs, long ladders and grappling hooks should fall within this definition? But many countries have not fully incorporated all this into their national legislation. Some make arrests only if their own nationals or ships are attacked.”

The article concludes that although beefed up enforcement at sea is probably required, “the real answer is to sort out Somalia. And navies can’t do that.” Part of the problem, Rear Admiral Scott Sanders, USN, insists is that the public needs to stop romanticizing piracy [“Admiral: Navy must ‘de-romanticize’ piracy,” by Andrew Scutro, Navy Times, 20 August 2009]. Sanders heads a task force specifically established to deal with piracy.

“‘Part of our message is to de-romanticize piracy,’ said Rear Adm. Scott Sanders, commander of counter-piracy Task Force 151. ‘Pirates are bad people. They are holding over 100 people against their will.’ … Although in recent years the U.S. Navy and other forces have been tangling with ship hijackers in the Somali Basin and the Gulf of Aden, Task Force 151 was stood up in January for specific and coordinated counter-piracy operations.”

In the article, Sanders explained that one of the advantages enjoyed by pirates is that they operate in a vast area and locating them is difficult. In an effort to improve surveillance, the U.S. military indicated last month that “it would be deploying unmanned reconnaissance aircraft in the skies above the Seychelles archipelago to bolster anti-piracy patrols” [“U.S. planes to join anti-piracy push,” Washington Times, 20 August 2009]. Other forces are also being tapped to bolster the task force as the monsoon season comes to an end [“Anti-piracy forces boosted to forestall surge,” by Robert Wright, Financial Times, 15 September 2009]. In an interesting development, for-hire services have developed to help shipping companies cope with piracy. These services include ransom negotiation and protection [“Splashing, and clashing, in murky waters,” The Economist, 22 August 2009 print issue].

“Parleying with pirates, and then paying the ransom (often by airdrops), are jobs that shipowners regularly contract out to private firms or ‘risk consultancies’. Other maritime security services are less controversial: fitting ships with kit, such as barbed or electric wires, to make it hard for pirates to clamber aboard. Increasingly, security firms also put armed guards on ships, or offer their own craft as escorts. Business protecting ships off east Africa has tripled in the past year, says Eos Risk Management, a London firm.”

In the end, however, The Economist was right. The piracy challenge begins on land not at sea. Until conditions ashore make it dangerous and unprofitable for pirates to operate, piracy will remain a problem. In places like Eyl, where pirates are a major source of income, local economies need to be stimulated simultaneously with a crackdown on criminals. Taking away once source of livelihood without replacing it with another doesn’t solve the problem it exacerbates it. Finding alternative sources of income for a place like Eyl is probably the most serious challenge to stopping piracy that the international community faces.