Confronting root cause of Piracy in Somali

A executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa has an article in the New York Times about confronting the root cause of piracy in Somali.

How is it possible that pirates from very poor Somalia can hold to ransom ships from some of the richest countries, despite the patrolling by the world’s strongest navies?

That was the dilemma discussed at the recent Istanbul Conference on Somalia, and is high on the agenda of the United Nations, NATO and the European Union.

The current anti-piracy strategy has worked well, but it is facing diminishing returns. Naval patrols off the Horn of Africa have reduced the success rate of attacks: 1 in 10 attempts succeed now, compared to 1 in 3 before. Yet the number of (reported) attacks doubled between 2007 and 2008 from 51 to 111, and doubled again in 2009 to 217. They are still on the increase.

Five years ago, most attacks were along the Somali coast; now some are carried out 1,000 miles offshore. The average ransom used to be a few thousand dollars; it has skyrocketed to $2-3 million and rising. Somali piracy will again earn about $100 million this year.

Navies from around the world protect vessels off the costs of Somalia. Is that working? To an extent yes, but at an exorbitant cost. A vessel patrolling off Somalia costs $100,000 a day. Considering that there are more than 40 vessels out on patrol, the aggregate annual operational cost is about $1.5 billion, compared to the $3 million paid into an anti-piracy trust fund especially created by the United Nations.

The effects on rich countries’ economy has been negligible, as insurance rates have increased only minimally. But the impact of piracy on East Africa is devastating: It endangers lives, curbs trade, kills tourism, steals food aid, enriches criminals, funds insurgents and perverts the regional economy. The disruption has now moved to Great Lakes states that use East African ports for trade.

How can the increased pirate attacks be reduced? First stop the catch and release policy. The pirates that are captured are held, detained and released due to the lack of a functioning government and justice system.

Letting the pirates go makes no sense: They are back in the water within a week (600 so far have been released following confiscation of their weapons). Shooting them on sight is fundamentally wrong (although it has happened, including recently). Transporting them to countries that own the seized vessels is impractical, given the distance and jurisdictional complexities. What else?

Patrolling off the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean must continue, and seized pirates must be brought to trial in the region: Kenya currently holds 124 pirates, the Seychelles 31 (which is 10 percent of their prison population). More pirates should, and can be tried in other countries in East Africa.

Further international assistance is therefore needed to strengthen the capacity of countries in the region — training prosecutors, refurbishing courts and prisons. This can have wider benefits: It can help police in the Horn of Africa combat drug trafficking (30-35 tons a year from Afghanistan alone), and the smuggling of guns, people, resources and electronics.

Most of all, the problem must be tackled at its source. Somalia is a high-risk environment, but not all of it is completely anarchic. In provinces such as Somaliland and Puntland, authorities have some control. They should be assisted, technically and financially, to build institutional and logistical infrastructures — coast guards, police, courts — to enforce the anti-piracy law on land.

More development aid, but the question again whom should provide the majority of resources is missing. Who is going to enforce the rule of law in a lawless state?

Paying out ransom payments will only increase piracy. Simple calculation of risk vs reward.

Some of the recommendations are typical United Nations presentation points, relying on multi-lateralism organizations and avoiding hard choices to please everyone. Nothing real new or deeply strategic.

The AU (African Union) should step up to the challenge. The Somali situation would be a good exercise to showcase its diplomatic and political heft.

The U.S., the only country with the prudent, sufficient military and security assets should fully back up and equip the AU more so than it has in the past. After all the U.S. does have  national security concerns from the region.

Here is a map of the pirate attacks in the region.

Reported pirate attacks and hijackings off the coast of Somali.


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