Yarrr! What’s the deal with Somali pirates?

Piracy off the coast of Somalia has cost the international community as much as $30 million dollars so far this year alone and has once again become an international priority of the moment for many world governments. The term “pirate” itself, is a debatable one, as many so-called “pirates” prefer to call themselves as “coastguards”, and see themselves as protecting their waters from international bodies who are dumping waste or are illegally fishing their livelihood away. Others see them as blood-thirsty thieves eager for profit. Who are these seafarers, and what motivates them to live this lifestyle?

There were at least 165 piracy attacks in Somali waters in 2008, up from the 58 in 2007. There have already been 60 attacks so far in 2009 and more than 200 hostages are still being held here. Acts of piracy off the coast of Somalia really began to rise about 10-15 years ago, as illegal international commercial fishing began plundering the country’s tuna-rich waters following the collapse of the Somali government in 1991. It started as angry fishermen took to the sea in their speedboats trying to dissuade dumpers and trawlers from devastating their waters; expecting a “tax” from the plunderers for the privilege to fish. These acts were often supported by the local communities. In fact, a Somali Wardher News research poll found that 70% of Somalis strongly supported piracy as the best form of national defense; but these tides are changing.

Piracy has been steadily rising as the country remains in chaos under the fighting of regional warlords and a completely fractured state that is incapable of supporting the population. The cities are bombed out ghost towns, as most of the population has fled from constant war, drought and famine. Insecurity has left the country in a constant state of war, where acts of violence are commonplace. Where the average annual income is only approximately $650, a successful pirate raid becomes a great way to get ahead. Pirate bosses have little difficulty recruiting new crews of fresh young teenagers and out of work fishermen eager to make some serious dough. Mostly, they are not heading out in fancy boats, laden with massive amounts of weapons. They are seizing giant cargo ships and tankers in tiny speedboats barely suitable for the seas, loaded with only a few guns, ladders and machetes. International warships have entered the Somali waters trying to stop the bandits, but are really only pushing the problem into the vast depths of the Indian ocean where it is much harder to police. Some say there is a danger of exaggerating the threat of piracy as it is mostly an economic threat, since the pirates “rarely harm crews” and “the actual cost to global shipping is negligible” .

Somalia, one of the poorest, least stable and most violent countries out there, is in shambles. There is no formal government overseeing the country, and almost all services must operate in the informal sector or through international humanitarian aid. There is no effective police force and over half of the population is on food aid, making the draw of up to $10,000 for one raid incredibly lucrative. “Heavy” sentences in Western prison cells that offer regular feedings, quality care and the opportunity of asylum in the new country is hardly a strong deterrent. The international laws are actually so incredibly vague on the subject, that many captured pirates find themselves being released shortly after capture. UN conventions define piracy as a universal crime, allowing each country to arrest pirates at sea and prosecute them at home; however, several countries have difficulty incorporating that into their domestic jurisdiction. Many countries wind up releasing the pirates back because of the potential legal headaches or sending them to Kenya to be tried. Out of 238 pirates captured by international navies, only about half were ever prosecuted. Many that are prosecuted are released shortly thereafter because they are handed over to Somali authorities in Puntland where they simply pay a bribe or use corruption channels to avoid any prison sentences.

And what of the crimes being committed in these waters by international actors? When will the be persecuted for their crimes? Allegations of waste dumping off the coast by European companies was brought to light during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami after hazardous waste containers washed up on Somali shores. Twenty percent of the world’s oil supply passes through this channel, and thousands of cargo ships pass regularly. Illegal trawlers have nearly fished the region dry. The local fishing populations are left without jobs, without livelihoods, without food to feed their families. Their families are left with strange illnesses, death and ailments from the toxic waste that they have been exposed to. What would you do? Where is the justice?

The Somali pirate issue is not merely an economic problem and it is not just a matter of dealing with the pirates. It is a symptom of a much greater social and justice problem that is incredibly pervasive and not going to go away simply because navies will patrol the waters. It will just shift the problem or make it that much worse. Something bigger needs to be done here– and it starts with establishing government and legality within the nation itself.


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