The world’s shipping is being held to ransom by a band of Somali pirates in battered launches. As yet another new president tries to take control of the failed state, perhaps it’s time we stopped playing nice and took decisive action.
You know you’re in a difficult neighbourhood when every morning you and some of your colleagues have to gather in a specific place at an appointed hour to travel convoy style from one street to the next under heavy guard. You then repeat the exercise all over again if you want to travel in the opposite direction. You do of course have the option to travel all the way around the perimeter of town to achieve the same result but this is a huge waste of time, not to mention energy. As you’re keen to cut your travel time and keep up with your colleagues (read competitors) you go along with this arrangement despite the fact that it’s an exercise that’s hugely expensive, not to mention slightly humiliating, because from the safety of your vehicle you know that you are being intimidated by a bunch of troublesome punks on pushbikes who need a proper thumping.
For supertankers and car carriers flying under various flags and carrying logos belonging to global logistics giants MSC, NYK and Maersk, this is daily life in and around the Gulf of Aden. A culture of safety in numbers now sees daily flotillas of commercial vessels steaming up and down the coast of Somalia under the keen watch of frigates, destroyers, choppers and surveillance aircraft on the lookout for Somali pirates. It’s an ordeal that’s not only tiresome for all involved but also not a sustainable solution for dealing with lanky men armed with rocket propelled grenades, ladders, hooks and ropes. If the whole thing seems a bit comical (the world’s most sophisticated warships protecting cargo carriers against attacks from dented fibreglass boats) it is – and needs to stop.
As we were putting this issue to bed two ships were hijacked by Somali pirates – despite the large naval presence scattered across the region. With some nations acting in concert under various acronyms (the British, Germans, US, Italians) and others unilaterally (the Chinese), attacks might be down this year over 2008, but there are still nine ships being held to ransom (at time of going to press) and the most recent attacks happened with the biggest ever show of force in the region.
So how do you put a stop to this buccaneer behaviour? For countries such as Denmark, which has a huge stake in the business of shipping millions of tonnes of goods around the world (roughly 10 per cent of the global market), you deploy one of your newest frigates and an able crew to patrol, intercept and scold the pirates (see our story on 155). While many attacks have been thwarted and pirates have been captured, the rules of engagement are complicated and then there’s the even trickier issue of what to do with a boat-full of skinny and hungry pirates who are working for a boss who’s busy roaring around on the mainland in his pimped-out SUV.
“There’s a frustration with the rules. Everyone knows where their bases are. Why can’t we put a ring of steel around them so they can’t get out? We need to stop them from leaving port in the first place. The only time navy ships can get stuck in is when they catch pirates attacking ships. The rules of engagement are rigid,” says Andrew Linington of Nautilus UK, a seafaring union that has had some of its members taken hostage. “If we’d seen aircraft attacked at that rate we would have seen action earlier. We believe it will take lots of dead sea birds or lots of dead passengers [until action is taken].”
A toothsome show of force at sea might keep attack numbers down but it’s time for a solution on shore. Whether it will be a gentle landing or a more forceful affair depends on who you talk to.
“It’s clear that the long-term solution will involve going ashore but it won’t be a case of sending in a marine force,” says Klaus Carsten Pedersen, director of the Danish Foreign Policy Society. “I don’t think in Denmark there’s the political will to use this type of force as it will require a long-term solution using a variety of tools from aid programmes to education.”
Roger Middleton, consultant researcher, Africa Programme at The Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House “I don’t think pumping money into security is the only solution. The international community needs to look at development ties as well. The new Somali government’s prospects for stamping out piracy are limited. Dealing with piracy is way down their agenda. And given the amount of money piracy generates, they’d be very unpopular.”
Cyrus Moody of the International Maritime Bureau “The problem will shift. As the numbers of attacks in the Gulf of Aden godown, the numbers further off the Somali coast and further south will go up.”