Why high-seas piracy is here to stay
Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
WASHINGTON — In 2005, the average ransom paid for the release of a ship hijacked by Somali pirates was around $150,000. By the end of last year, it stood at $5.4 million. That means revenues for the business of piracy more than doubled every year. The 2005 to 2010 percentage increase is a staggering 3,600 percent.
The ransom numbers come from the One Earth Foundation, a U.S. think tank, and help explain why the business of piracy, probably the world’s most profitable, has been expanding — despite an increased international naval presence in the waters hounded by Somali pirates, despite a string of plans to protect shipping, and despite increasingly exasperated statements from politicians and ship owners.
Talking about pirates off Somalia, who killed four Americans on February 22, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said this week that “I’m fed up with it.” Piracy is moving up Washington’s list of priorities, according to her. A few weeks earlier, Ban Ki-Moon, the United Nations Secretary General, noted that “piracy seems to be outpacing the efforts of the international community to stem it.”
Ship owners agree. Early in March, five of the world’s largest maritime organizations, complaining that “2,000 Somali pirates are hijacking the world’s economy”, launched an advertising campaign and a website (www. SaveOurSeafarers.com) demanding tougher action. The group includes the International Chamber of Shipping, which represents about 80 percent of the world’s merchant ships, and INTERTANKO, whose members operate most of the world’s tankers.
In half page advertisements in leading newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal, the group noted that “even when caught red-handed, 80 percent of pirates are released to attack again.”
The practice, known as “catch and release”, figures in the risk-reward calculations of the piracy business, whose leaders are aware of the thicket of laws, regulations and jurisdictional ambiguities which has made arrest and prosecution of pirates difficult. There are no uniform rules of engagement for the warships on counter-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian ocean. By some definitions, an act of piracy does not begin until grappling hooks are thrown over the sides and the pirates start clambering up.
While the number of navy vessels on counter-piracy patrols has increased (there are about 30 warships on patrol now) so has the area threatened by pirates, who launch speedboats from mother ships up to a thousand miles from the Somali coast. So, the warships are looking for needles in a haystack.
AN ENTERPRISE DOOMED TO FAILURE
Which is why trying to end piracy purely with sea-borne operations looks like an enterprise doomed to failure. The key to solving the problem is on land — the fact that Somalia, a failed state, is a sanctuary for pirates. No country is prepared to take action against that sanctuary, where more than 800 seafarers are currently held hostage.
“The problem is being addressed right now only from the sea,” Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, said in a recent radio discussion on piracy. “We are trying to deter attacks. We are trying to protect ships. But the problem lies on land. It lies in villages and port cities, in ungoverned spaces where…this is a profitable business. It is essentially the main driver for revenue in Somalia.”
Donna Hopkins, the U.S. government’s coordinator of Counter Piracy and Maritime Security, has described piracy as “deeply ingrained in the Somali economic and social structure” and said the problem would continue as long as there is no effective government to control territorial waters and the Somali coastline.
When might that happen? Don’t hold your breath. Somalia has had no effective government since 1991 when the Communist dictatorship of Mohamed Siad Barre was toppled. In the two decades since then, the country has been torn by fighting between rival warlords and militias, an Ethiopian invasion to oust Islamists, and battles between militants linked to al Qaeda and what passes for a government.
In the process, Somalia earned the dubious distinction of being ranked the world’s most corrupt country. It came dead last on the 2010 corruption perception index of 178 countries compiled by Transparency International, a watchdog group based in Berlin.
The longer the problem festers, the more difficult it is to resolve. “As pirates become richer, they become harder to dislodge,” says Roger Middleton, the author of a report on piracy by Chatham House, a British think tank. “Pirates can be chased on the ocean, but piracy can only be eradicated on land.”
So what to do? One way would be stepped up military action on land, following the example of a daring helicopter-born French commando raid in 2008 to capture pirates who had held 30 hostages from a French yacht. Another way would be to redouble international efforts to finally help Somalia establish an effective government to tackle the linked problems of piracy, poverty, hunger and war.
Both options require what the ship owners backing the Save Our Seafarers campaign say governments around the world lack — political will.
(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com).
Photos: Top; Hostages and pirates stand with their hands up before the intervention of Dutch NATO soldiers off Somalia’s coast in this NATO handout photo made available April 18, 2009. REUTERS/NATO/Handout Bottom; Pirates on speedboat approach one of their mother boats docked near Eyl, Somalia in this framegrab made from a November 24, 2008 TV footage. REUTERS/Reuters TV