Dialogue Series, Environmental Studies, Panels, Regional Studies

Open-Sea Piracy in the Modern World: Perils and Prospects

Open-Sea Piracy in the Modern World: Perils and Prospects

On March 21, 2010, CIRS convened a Panel presentation on the topic of “Open-Sea Piracy in the Modern World: Perils and Prospects.” The panel was made up of Pottengal Mukundan, Director of the International Maritime Bureau, Roger Middleton, Consultant Researcher working for the Africa Programme at Chatham House, and Daniele Archibugi, Research Director at the Italian National Research Council.

Click here to download an MP3 of Piracy Panels’ discussion

Pottengal Mukundan headed the panel presentations with an overview of the current situation regarding pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia. He reported on statistical data collected by the Piracy Reporting Center located in Kuala Lumpur. The Center compiles information on attacks against vessels and acts as a catalyst for governments to respond to the growing problem. Mukundan reported that in 2009, there were 406 attacks, 49 vessels hijacked, over 1,000 crew taken hostage, and 11 crew members killed. He argued that “in today’s world, this is unacceptable.” Because all types of vessels – large and small, commercial and private – have been attacked, Mukundan explained that, contrary to popular belief, ships are not being targeted in advance. These are opportunist attacks.

View the presentation from lecture below:

The Challenges of Piracy Today from Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar

“What we are seeing [in Somalia],” Mukundan said, “is an unprecedented criminal phenomenon.” As with any crime, unless there is a firm push-back, the criminals will extend the frequency and audacity of their attacks. Pirates are now ranging 1,000 nautical miles out to sea in their mother-boats and small vessels and are attacking much larger, and better equipped, ships and tankers. In many instances, these vessels are seized by the pirates and sailed back to the coast of Somalia where they are held until a ransom is paid. “These vessels are held for anywhere between six weeks and three months on average,” he said.

Mukundan argued that “the deterrent to crimes is usually enacted by the state. In Somalia, it is not possible because it is a failed state. There is no national law enforcement agency and there is no judicial system,” so taking action against these criminals has become very difficult, particularly when these criminals are bringing vast sums of money into the local economy. Much of this money provides revenue streams for local militias. He argued that what is needed in this situation is to try to change the risk/reward balance for the pirates. It is little wonder, Mukundan said, that the crimes are so rampant when the rewards are so great, the risks so negligible, and the economic outlook of Somalia so dire.

Apart from the problem of how to deter the pirates, there remains the problem of what to do with them after they are caught. There still needs to be better coordination between countries and law enforcement agencies regarding the criminal prosecution of pirates. Currently, Somalia has bilateral relations with Kenya, but Kenya has reached its capacity in this regard.

In conclusion, Mukundan argued that piracy is not just a governmental problem; it is a public problem because all commercial goods that people consume on a daily basis come via sea routes. Therefore, Mukundan said, there is good reason for all governments to allocate resources to deal with this very prevalent problem.

View the presentation from the lecture below:

Wy Somalia Works for Pirates from Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar 

Continuing the debate was the second panelist, Roger Middleton, who placed Somali piracy within a historical context and argued that the current situation is a result of the many failed political formations that the country has experienced. Middleton noted that although the problem of piracy is rampant in Somalia, “it is worth remembering that piracy is not, by a long distance, the biggest problem in Somalia, but it is a means of engaging the world’s attention on what is one of the most difficult political situations in Africa.” Piracy is just one example of the myriad political and structural deficiencies that Somalia faces.

The political, economic, and geographic conditions in Somalia create the ideal situation for pirates and criminal networks to thrive on a major naval trade corridor. Middleton explained that, since at least the 1970s, Somalia has been at war with itself and with its neighbors leaving 3.5 million people in desperate need of aid. This is compromised by criminal acts of piracy and corruption, and is further compounded by the fact that “external actors do not always have the best of intentions when they come into Somalia.” Indeed, Middleton argued, “the failure of the international community to effectively prevent illegal fishing in Somali waters certainly has fed into the hands of the pirates in terms of giving them an excellent public relations tool.”

The war in Somalia, Middleton argued, was originally an attempt to liberate the country from a dictator, but this quickly evolved into an economically-motivated warlord struggle. Currently, he said, the war has taken yet another turn and there are areas of Somalia that are being governed by groups like Al-Shabaab who aim to impose fundamentalist ideologies. These factions are further fueled by an abundance of easily available illegal weapons. Middleton said, “when the regime of Siad Barre fell in the beginning of the 1990s, the barracks and the armories were opened and onto the Somali market flooded hundreds of thousands of weapons.” Somalia has become one of the major entry points of illegal arms into Africa.

Middleton argued that it was important to point out that piracy is a criminal act and not one of terrorism, contrary to numerous media reports. The reason why piracy has become such a sensationalist media topic is because “there is real paucity of good intelligence about what is going on in Somalia,” and this has fed into the international community’s general fears about terrorism.

In conclusion, Middleton urged the international community to address the humanitarian and political problems in Somalia with just as much focus as it gives to piracy. “Piracy,” he said, “is just one example of what happens if you do nothing about Somalia’s internal problems.”

View the presentation from lecture below:

Pirates in the Gulf of Aden from Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar  

Daniele Archibugi concluded the panel with a presentation on how European countries view piracy and their responses to it. Archibugi noted that the social and cultural struggles taking place at the heart of the piracy debate are often forgotten by policy-makers who focus on the broader political and macro-economic implications, leaving little room to discuss the daily effects of piracy.

Somali piracy is interesting, Archibugi said, because the perpetrators are usually poor and disenfranchised people, not the organized criminal networks one would expect to pull off such daring feats against large commercial oil tankers. The political situation in Somalia has meant that the international community, made up of powerful states, utilizing modern warfare technologies such as satellites, weaponry, and navies, is rendered powerless in the face of a much lesser enemy. “It is surprising to see that the new holy alliance to fight 1,000 illiterate boys is so far unable to address the problem,” he said.

The international community’s inaction regarding the political situation in Somalia has generated a failed state, increased poverty, and the conditions which encourage piratical acts. The cost of this inaction, Archibugi explained, is far greater than the resources the business sector and tax payers spend in the United States and Europe to pay for navies to patrol the Gulf of Aden. Paying insurance premiums, hiring private security firms, and agreeing to ransoms do not solve the problem, but avoids it in order for daily business to continue. To skirt the problems of imposing international law on a failed state, ship owners and insurance companies have opted to settle matters privately with pirates. This is an option that is more profitable and preferable to European corporations in comparison to the drawn-out negotiations otherwise necessary to solve the problem in the long-term.

Currently, Archibugi argued, both piracy and war crimes could potentially be treated as part of the same universal jurisdiction discourse. He said, “in my view, and according to my scale of values, I would nominate war crimes as a far greater crime than piracy. I would like to see […] that the same rules and the same legal procedures applied to pirates are applied to war criminals.” Archibugi continued by saying, that the reason why all the international community’s energies’ are focused on piracy and not war criminals is because “war criminals are the powerful and the pirates are the powerless.”

Because piracy is a crime that has garnered much media interest, the international community pays close attention to what happens to the pirates after they are caught. If the arresting country is European, it must insist that the pirates be tried fairly and placed in jails that meet European human rights standards. Archibugi argued that piracy has, therefore, opened up discussions about forcing pirate-receiving countries to better their standards and living conditions in jails. The legal frameworks for conducting such novel international trials, Archibugi said, have yet to be put into place. “Somali piracy tells us that global governance is very fragile,” he said.

Archibugi concluded by arguing that the problems of piracy should be addressed on land and not at sea. “At sea it is very difficult to trace them and it is very difficult to fight them, but not on land.” Indeed, he said, if the international community manages to help recreate a federal state in Somalia, it will eventually be possible to control the coast and eliminate piracy, and, above all, to provide a decent life to the Somali population. 

Article by Suzi Mirgani. Mirgani is CIRS Publications Coordinator.