The Horn of Africa has become a hotbed of piracy due to outdated maritime laws, the lack of a Somali government and gut-wrenching poverty.
Where there is a sea, there are pirates. - Greek proverb
To many people, the term "piracy" evokes images of the movie Pirates of the Caribbean. Until last year piracy was an annoyingly persistent low-level irritant for maritime nations, clustered around several global hotspots, including African waters, the Straits of Malacca and relatively isolated incidents in Latin America.
Last year the problem metastasized in the waters of Somalia, where now a motley international coalition of about 30 warships, including vessels from NATO members Italy, Latvia, Turkey, Greece, the US, the UK, Denmark, Spain and Germany, along with India, France, China, Russia and Japan are attempting to contain the problem. Piracy is now big business: Kenyan Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula estimates that in 2008 the Somali pirates received $US150 million in ransom payments.
In January the International Chamber of Commerce's International Maritime Bureau Piracy Reporting Centre stated that 2008 piratical attacks worldwide totaled 293, with 49 vessels hijacked and 889 crew members taken hostage, its highest figures since it began reporting in 1992. Attacks in the Gulf of Aden and Somali waters accounted for 111 incidents, an increase of nearly 200 percent from 2007. Nigeria ranked second with 40 reported incidents while the Malacca Straits saw only two attacks in 2008, compared to seven in 2007.
High Profile Incidents
The Ukrainian freighter Faina was seized on 25 September 2008. What focused attention on the ship was its cargo of 33 T-72 tanks and military equipment, ostensibly bound for Kenya. After protracted negotiations which saw an initial ransom demand of US$35 million whittled down to US$3.5 million during the ship's 134-day captivity, the Faina and her 20 crewmen was released on 5 February, but not before her captain had died of apparent natural causes.
On 15 November 2008 the Somali pirates captured their biggest prize yet, the VLCC (very large crude carrier) 162,252- ton Sirius Star, 500 nautical miles southeast of Mombasa, the farthest out to sea Somali pirates had struck up to then. With a capacity of two million barrels, the Sirius Star carried the equivalent of more than a quarter of Saudi Arabia's daily production, a cargo worth more than worth US$100 million at the time.
On 9 January the vessel was freed in exchange for a US$3 million ransom. What most unsettled the international community was that the VLCC's capture proved that the potential range of the pirates now extended to an area of more than 1.1 million square miles, as they extended their activities as far south as the Tanzanian coast.
Muslim nations were rattled by the seizure of the Saudi tanker, a high-profile reminder that the pirates were no respecters of their co-religonists' property. Dr Mark N Katz, professor of government and politics at George Mason University in Virginia, US observed, "The Somali pirates believe in equal opportunity. They seize vessels both from Muslim and non-Muslim countries," adding, "the governments of Muslim countries, especially Saudi Arabia, don't feel any happier just because their ships are being seized by Muslim pirates instead of non-Muslim ones.
The Complexity of Battling Piracy
Maritime law is now the oldest and most complex corpus of international law. The Somalia imbroglio encapsulates the complexities facing the foreign flotilla, which incorporate issues of territorial and international waters along with exclusive economic zones (EEZ) as defined by the 1994 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, multinational crews, vessel ownership, flags of convenience, insurance issues and current International Maritime Organization regulations prohibiting merchantmen from carrying firearms, even for self defense.
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In such convoluted circumstances, armed clashes between foreign warships and Somali pirates would open up extremely complex issues incapable of immediate resolution. Should the Somalis destroy a high-value target such as a VLCC or natural gas tanker or seize a cruise ship with hundreds of passengers, the international ramifications would be enormous.
On 22 August 2008 the multinational naval coalition Combined Task Force 150 (CTF 150), set up after the 11 September attacks to patrol the Arabian Sea and the coast of Africa to combat terrorism, established an eight-mile-wide, 550 mile-long nautical corridor - the Maritime Safety Protection Area (MSPA) - in the Gulf of Aden in which patrols would be conducted to provide safe passage to merchantmen. CTF aircraft also monitored the channel. Obviously unfazed, the following month Somali pirates seized nine vessels, ranging in size from a luxury yacht to the 23,818-ton chemical tanker Stolt Valor.
The UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1838 on 7 October, calling upon "states interested in the security of maritime activities to deploy naval vessels and military aircraft to actively fight piracy on the high seas off the coast of Somalia." It was followed on 2 December by Resolution 1846, which broadened the mandate of Resolution 1838, allowing any nation or regional organization in conjunction with the Somali Transitional Federal Government to enter Somali waters and use "all necessary means" to fight piracy.
Accordingly, on 13 December the EU Naval Force (NAVFOR) began Operation Atalanta off Somalia to protect World Food Programme (WFP) vessels and prevent and repress piracy.
Worst Case Scenarios
Somali depredations now provide the possibility of two nightmare scenarios – the capture and possible detonation, whether deliberate or accidental, of a vessel with a hydrocarbon cargo, or the seizure of a cruise vessel with hundreds of passengers, creating a massive hostage problem.
Besides the volatility of the oil aboard the Sirius Star, pirates have captured other vessels carrying highly explosive cargoes. On 10 April 2005 Somali pirates seized the Feisty Gas, a liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) carrier. The ship was released after its Hong Kong owners paid a reported US$315,000 ransom to a pirate representative in Mombasa. More recently, on 29 January Somali pirates seized the 3,415-ton German LPG tanker Longchamp, which they still hold.
On 5 November 2005 the 10,000-ton Seabourn Spirit, a German 5-star luxury cruise ship plying the waters between Europe and Africa, came under attack by two pirate speedboats launched from a mothership, 70 miles off the Somali coast. The liner replied by blasting their attackers with a long range acoustic device and increasing speed, eventually outrunning their attackers.
Since the assault on the Seabourn Spirit, Somali pirates have attempted to hijack two other cruise ships. On 28 November 2008 two pirate speedboats attacked the German-flagged Astor cruise liner, carrying 300 crew and 492 passengers, in the Gulf of Oman, but this time the marauders were repelled by the German frigate Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.
Two days later, it was the turn of the US cruise ship Nautica, carrying 386 crew and 684 passengers. In a sign of the pirates' increasing brazenness, two pirate skiffs assaulted the Nautica as it traversed the MSPA. The ship's captain immediately began evasive maneuvers and increased the vessel's speed and was able to outrun their attackers, but not before one of their skiffs got within nine yards and fired eight rifle shots in the direction of the vessel.
Even more worrying to maritime authorities is that, given the successes and rich ransoms of the Somali pirates, piracy may spread to other waters in copycat attacks. On 23 February the Russian bulk tanker Khatanga was attacked by speedboats 20 miles off the Nigerian coast. The ship doused its lights and accelerated, eventually outrunning their attackers.
Deprivation Plus Desperation
After 17 years of non-stop conflict, Somalia is a prime example of a failed nation-state. While no reliable statistics have been available since the 1991 collapse of Siad Barre's government, specialists extrapolating from available data estimate Somalia's unemployment rate at 66 percent for urban areas and 41 percent for rural and nomadic regions. The economic deprivation, along with Somali fishermen desperation due to being squeezed out of their normal fishing areas by heavily armed foreign fishing vessels, combined with the complete lack of any effective Somali government naval presence, and the vulnerability of passing merchantmen, make piracy a viable alternative means of employment.
According to the High Seas Task Force (HSTF), established in 2003 by various countries' fisheries ministers and international NGOs working to develop an action plan designed to combat illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing on the high seas, European, Middle and Far Eastern IUU fishing fleets in Somalia at the onset of the civil war in 1991 began to trespass and fish in the 200-mile Somali EEZ. Rogue trawlers included vessels from Italy, France, Spain, Greece, Russia, Britain, Ukraine, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, India, Yemen and Egypt. Now an estimated 700- 800 IUU trawlers annually invade Somali waters.
Somalia's 2,050-mile coastline is the longest in continental Africa, facing both the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden, and is densely populated with marine life due to annual upwelling of cool, nutrient rich water off the Horn of Africa. The IUU fleets harvest valuable species including tuna, shark, lobster and deep-water shrimp. Deprived of an opportunity to exploit their seas' rich bounty themselves and the complete indifference of the international community to their plight, Somali mariners took to the sea in search of bigger prey.
In January a new multinational squadron, led by the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, Combined Task Force 151 (CTF 151), created as a mission specific international counter-piracy task force, began operations last month. Beyond Task Force 151, the Pentagon has now dispatched the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Dwight D Eisenhower and its attendant Carrier Strike Group to the Somali coast, which one critic has likened to "swatting flies with a huge oar."
UPI Homeland and National Security Editor and ISN contributor Shaun Waterman was similarly acerbic, commenting, "While the United States has shown commendable multi-lateralism in gathering an international coalition to try and protect merchant traffic off the Somali coast, the only real solution lies in the hard work of building state institutions in Somalia and strengthening the naval and coast guard capacities of its neighbors."
Furthermore, on the issue of international cooperation Roger N McDermott, Honorary Senior Research Fellow in the University of Kent at Canterbury's Department of Politics and International Relations observed, "Note that although piracy is covered by international law, there are still questions about how and where to put pirates on trial. On 11 December 2008, the UK entered arrangements with Kenya, allowing trial in the latter for captured pirates, which could serve as a precedent in future."
While the world is deploying an increasingly muscular naval presence off Somalia, as long as it remains a failed state, depredations will continue unless maritime nations add to their arsenal political efforts to resolve the country's immense political and economic problems and engage in a task most distasteful to western countries, nation building. Until that happens, despite the foreign naval presence, the ongoing unchecked looting of Somalia's EEZ by IUU fishing fleets guarantees that Somali mariners will continue to set to sea, their efforts fuelled by poverty and resentment.
By. John C.K. Daly of OilPrice.com