The Real Problem of Somali Piracy

Illustration by Harry Campbell

The fishing trawler wallowed in the deep swells of the Gulf of Aden, forced to a stop by a French warship. The skipper of the trawler, a South Korean, was not happy about accepting the boarding party, but he had little choice: The French were part of a European Union task force charged with hunting for pirates in these waters.

As they prepared to board the fishing vessel, the sailors on the frigate, the Premier Ma”tre L’Her, were puzzled. What would a South Korean trawler be doing so close to one of the most dangerous shorelines in the world? The boat was well within sight of the cliffs of the Somali coast, not far from a town notorious as a pirate haven.

According to an industry group, the International Maritime Bureau, Somali pirates attacked more than 130 merchant vessels in 2008, and captured more than 40 of them, holding ships, cargos, and crew members for ransom. Shipping companies don’t like to reveal what they’ve paid in ransoms, but experts estimate that the pirates collected in excess of $30 million last year.

As the French boarding team approached the fishing vessel in inflatable boats, Lieutenant Commander Alexis Beatrix speculated that the trawler might be running guns to the pirates, who’d been using AK-47s and rocket- propelled grenades to capture merchant vessels in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. The French team did find weapons on the trawler, but there appeared to be only enough for self-defense. The situation looked highly suspicious—it’s unusual for fishermen to carry automatic rifles—but there wasn’t enough evidence for the French to take action.

It’s likely that the South Korean trawler was doing just what it was designed to do: intensive, industrial-strength fishing that scrapes the ocean bottom and drags up every kind of sea life in its nets. The trawler captain may have been willing to risk a pirate attack because he was engaged in an extremely lucrative form of piracy himself: illegal fishing on an unprotected coast.

The reason most commonly given for the outbreak of piracy along the Somali coast is that Somalia is a failed state. Since the collapse of the central government in 1991, Somalia has not been able to enforce its laws or control its territorial waters. The nation with the longest coastline in Africa cannot stop pirates from operating from its harbors. It also can’t keep foreign fishermen from plundering its fishery resources, or prevent foreign polluters from using its waters as a dumping ground for toxic waste.

Although piracy in Somalia appears to be largely organized and sponsored by criminal cartels, the actual attacks on vessels are mostly carried out by former Somali fishermen. They have the considerable seamanship required to chase, attack, and board large ships using only small skiffs and light weapons. They’re also relatively easy to recruit, since the fishing industry on their coast has been devastated by unregulated foreign fishing. Some of the pirates themselves have claimed that their attacks are at least partly a reaction to the loss of livelihood caused by illegal fishing. Trawlers, particularly, are said to be damaging the coral reefs that are important fish-spawning grounds.

The dumping of toxic waste off the Somali coast has been documented by UNEP, the United Nations Environmental Program. A study commissioned by the Italian parliament in 2000 found that a so-called ‘Eco-mafia’ of European waste-disposal companies was dumping at least 35 million tons of waste each year off the Somali coast and at illegal dumpsites on land. The study noted that some of the dumping may have included radioactive material.

Despite concerns about the effects of lawlessness on Somali fisheries and the environment, the main focus of international attention on Somali piracy has been the substantial cost to world trade. The Gulf of Aden is the world’s busiest shipping lane, funneling most of the sea trade between Europe and Asia into the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. The threat of piracy has driven maritime insurance rates higher for all the vessels that use that route and increased costs for all the goods they transport. For some companies, there’s also the cost of putting armed security teams on vessels, or even of taking the longer, but safer, route around the Cape of Good Hope. Finally, there’s the cost of maintaining an international fleet of naval vessels in the region to suppress piracy.

That Somalia doesn’t have an effective central government poses real challenges for the international community, which is still experimenting with ways of dealing with failed states. The international naval flotilla off the Somali coast is authorized by U.N. resolution 1851, passed in December of last year, which gives nations involved in fighting piracy a one-year mandate for their operations. It says those nations may “take all necessary measures” to suppress “acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea.”

When it comes to protecting their shipping against Somali criminals, the nations of the world seem willing and even eager to police the waters of a state that can’t police itself. What’s missing is international action to protect the waters of a state that can’t protect itself—to stop the illegal fishing and waste dumping that contribute to Somalia’s ongoing crisis.

The U.N. special envoy to Somalia has called for such action, and there are international agreements that could serve as the legal basis, such as the Law of the Sea. The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Waste has also been suggested as a basis for combating illegal dumping in Somali waters.

The enforcement part of the mission could start immediately because there are already more than a dozen foreign warships patrolling the Somali coast. In many cases, they are already stopping and examining fishing vessels at work in Somalia’s waters, but they have no mandate to enforce that country’s fishing regulations or those of the international community. The naval patrols could also turn their attention to vessels looking for places to jettison cargos of waste.

The international community should create a comprehensive legal framework for dealing with failed states, a framework that will protect their people and resources while allowing them to re-establish state institutions. The United Nations should revisit some of the ideas for doing that, such as creating a new mandate for the U.N. Trusteeship Council, which used to administer trust territories as they made their way toward independence.

Corey Flintoff, foreign correspondent for National Public Radio, spent two weeks off the coast of Somalia last winter reporting on piracy. Last December, he addressed the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School’s combined MBA ethics proseminar sections about the involvement of United States businesses in Iraq.

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