No end to piracy off the coast of Somalia?

Two years since the European Union’s anti-piracy mission Operation Atalanta has commenced, pirate activity off the coast of Somalia is higher than ever before. From Michael C. Pietsch

November 2010 has been the busiest month in terms of piracy incidents on record. Whereas in previous years pirate action had been limited by the effects of the South-West and North-East monsoon, it now seems that only the former remains strong enough to suppress pirate activity during summer. Despite best military efforts, piracy has spread over a vast area and attacks occur as far as 1200 nautical miles east of the Somali coastline, closer to the Indian subcontinent than to Africa.

Pirates’ tactics have evolved and they seem to constantly adapt to counter-piracy forces‘ concepts of operations. The most recent development has seen pirates relying increasingly on so-called „mother ships“, i.e. pirated merchant vessels that are now being used as „floating camps“ from which they launch their skiff-type attack boats. This has not only enhanced the pirates’ endurance at sea and has made them more independent from weather. Moreover, since the crews of the misused merchant vessels are held hostage on board and used as human shields, this precludes any military action other than “shadowing” the vessel.

Pirates have followed the escape of commercial shipping lanes further and further south and east of Somalia. It seems that there are no natural boundaries to their hunting grounds. With an area approximately twice the size of Europe, the international community would need to commit around 800 ships, each fitted with helicopters, to protect every innocent seafarer – obviously, this is not going to happen.

The divided records of military efforts – successes and limitations

At the same time, however, the European Naval Force can announce that successful attacks have not risen to the same degree as did attacks. In other words, pirates have to try harder and more often to take a ship. The international military presence has undoubtedly led to the prevention or disruption of many attacks. After all, EUNAVFOR has excelled in mission achievement with respect to its primary task which is the protection of World Food Programme shipments into Somalia. No ship carrying humanitarian aid into Somalia has been taken since EU warships have begun with escort operations.

Apart from EUNAFOR, NATO has deployed naval assets under its Operation Ocean Shield. The US-led Coalition ”Combined Maritime Forces” continues to shuffle its assets between its counter-terrorism and counter-piracy task forces. Besides, there are independent deployers from a whole lot of countries such as China, Russia, India, Japan and South Korea in the area. Remarkably, piracy has triggered cooperation between these most diverse partners to an unprecedented degree. Today, it is possible to observe a Japanese patrol aircraft cueing, let’s say, a US-warship under NATO-flag whilst a Chinese naval unit has taken over surveillance of another suspicious contact that would otherwise be left uncovered. Still, this is not a global coalition against piracy, but few would have imagined scenes like this that have now become pragmatic reality in the Gulf of Aden and the Somali Basin.

The well-known but poorly tackled root causes of piracy

So what is the solution, if there is any? Hardly any article or political statement related to piracy will fail to highlight that the root causes of piracy lie ashore. Repeatedly, reference is made to Somalia as a failed state and the absence of rule of law. Although this situation has not improved for long, the international community has not yet come to review its pledge of loyalty to the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia. This „government“ is barely surviving, controlling something around ten blocks in Mogadishu and is totally dependent on the military protection by the African Union’s mission in Somalia. The south of the country remains under control of Islamic militias, Al-Shabaab being the most prominent and powerful movement. This is in stark contrast to the north of the country, where the quasi-autonomous provinces of Somaliland and Puntland show signs of sustainable stability. Somaliland has even seen smooth transition of government power after elections.

The UN office on drugs and crime (UNODC) has tried to build on these thin foundations of stability through its efforts towards the built-up of a secure and human imprisonment capacity within Somalia. Not only would it be feasible to incarcerate convicted pirates in their home country. More importantly, it would most likely encourage regional states to commit their judicial capacities in prosecution framework agreements with Western military forces. Because today, naval forces are limited to „catch and release“ of pirates since none of the counter-piracy forces entertains a workable transfer agreement. Whereas the Seychelles have even enacted legislation that allows to trial pirates suspected of „acts of conspiracy to commit piracy“, their limited imprisonment capacity has made them reluctant to accept pirates caught outside their exclusive economic zone. Kenya, on the other hand, where 76 pirates have been transferred to for prosecution by EUNAVFOR alone, has suspended the agreement. With no workable prosecution framework in place, deterrence fails: If the worst scenario for a pirate caught by counter-piracy forces is to be provided with food and water and be gently dropped back at the beach, the constant stream of young desperate Somali men with very few alternative livelihoods, prepared to put their own and others‘ lives at risk, won’t abate soon.

Regional Capacity Building and Best Management Practice – handing over the problem

The situation ashore in Somalia looks gloomy and is unlikely to improve soon. Furthermore, the announced cuts in defence budgets by major European troop contributing countries indicate that, ultimately, navies will start to retreat. If piracy then is still to be kept at a barely tolerable level, counter-piracy capacities need to be built in the region sooner rather than later, be it in Yemen, Djibouti, the Seychelles, Kenya or Tanzania. Initiatives like the „Djibouti Code of Conduct“ framework supporting the foundation of regional counter-piracy information sharing and training centres are embryonic steps in the right direction. But much more has to be done and, as always, funding is short and the complex and still incoherent approaches of the plethora of the bodies of the EU impede decisive, quick and sustainably funded action. It remains to be seen whether the newly established European External Action Service will be able to harmonize European Foreign Policy Action.

More promising are the effects achieved by the adoption of Best Management Practices (BMP) by shipping industry. BMP advice publications have been produced by the Shipping Industry in consultation with the combined naval forces – EUNAVFOR, the NATO Shipping Centre and the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO). It is targeted at seafarers and advising them on mostly simple but effective measures for self-protection against piracy attacks ranging from proper outlook to the use of fire hoses and to fortification with barbed wire. The employment of BMP by ships has inhibited a considerable number of attacks. With more and more pirates setting out to see further and further and less and less ships and aircraft deployed to counter them to provide protection, self-protection seems to be the only viable option for seafarers.

The pictures are subject to the copyright of EUNAVFOR.

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EUNAVFOR helicopter has stopped a skiff with suspected pirates