Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Recommendations for dealing with Somali piracy

Twenty-five scholars, diplomats, lawyers, military officers, shipping industry officials and other experts on maritime piracy and Somalia convened at the Harvard Kennedy School in December 2009 under the auspices of the World Peace Foundation as the Cambridge Coalition to Combat Piracy. The final product from this event was a policy brief titled "Combating Maritime Piracy" (PDF file). I was one of the participants at the conference. While I agree with 90 percent of the recommendations, I take exception to several of them. My concerns follow.
  1. Recommendation #10: "If local authorities are to take charge, they will need justice systems, policy forces, jails and so on. The forces of world order should assist local developmental and institutional building efforts that appear sincere and plausible." I have no problem with the recommendation itself, but disagree with part of the analysis that led to the recommendation. The analysis concludes that the leaders of al-Shabaab have been publicly critical of pirate operations because the pirates support separate sources of power and, supposedly, because Islam does not condone piracy. I am not aware that al-Shabaab has ever been critical of pirate operations and, in fact, there are a couple of reports that link elements of al-Shabaab with at least one of the pirate operations. The former Islamic Courts did a good job of clamping down on piracy. There is no evidence that al-Shabaab has made any effort to stop piracy.
  2. Recommendation #11: "If African states and the AU can be persuaded to recognize the now independent but otherwise unacknowledged polity of Somaliland, doing so will strengthen the incentives for Puntland, which aspires to greater autonomy, and parts or all of the remainder of Somalia to make similar progress in terms of political institution building. Recognition of Somaliland will thus assist in strengthening accountability and governance in regions that are now pirate infected. Indeed, if Puntland knew that international engagement were possible, following on a full recognition of Somaliland, a powerful incentive would exist for Puntland to exert control over and reduce the threat from pirates on its soil." While I am sympathetic to Somaliland and believe African states and the AU should give serious consideration to its formal recognition, I fail to see the connection between this possibility and a positive impact on the situation in Puntland. On the contrary, it could encourage the further breakup of Somalia, which I do not believe is in the long-term interest of the Somali people or the United States. The legal background of Somaliland is totally different. Puntland and Somaliland also have conflicting claims on Sool and parts of Sanag regions.
  3. Recommendation #14 (in part): "We also urge the forging of a compact among ocean carriers, insurance companies, individuals and states to cease paying ransoms. If every major shipping firm is on record forbidding the paying of ransoms, and/or if the leading maritime nations agree to deter their own firms from responding to ransom requests, the profits of piracy will ebb." In theory, this is a fine recommendation. It is totally unrealistic and only detracts from the many good recommendations in this policy brief. Once pirates capture a ship, they have the owners over a barrel. The owners must either pay the ransom or the pirates hold the ship and crew. What are the owners to do? I agree that no government should ever pay a ransom, but ship owners should be allowed to take whatever action they believe is in their best interest.
  4. Recommendation #19: "Ocean carriers and flag states should agree publicly that reasonable force may be used to combat attacks. Indeed, the crews, along with high value and/or highly vulnerable cargo, may merit armed security. Flag states (or, if necessary, the ship owners or operators) should issue rules for the use of force and escalation of force policies. In that context, properly trained sharpshooters, under the direction of the ship’s master and with clear rules for the use of force, should be authorized to shoot when menacing skiffs approach within 300-400 yards of a target vessel and present an imminent threat to a vessel or its crew. Those sharpshooters should be prepared to continue firing, if necessary." This was perhaps the most controversial recommendation. Many of the participants favored a softer response. I was in a tiny minority that favored a tougher response when these pirate attacks occur in international waters. In most cases, pirates on fast approaching skiffs are firing AK-47s and RPGs at the bridge of the vessel singled out for capture in order to encourage the ship’s master to stop. If the attacked ship has an armed security team on board, it should be authorized to respond with live ammunition as soon as the pirates begin firing at the targeted ship and/or when the skiffs are within 300-400 yards. Nor do I see any reason why these teams must consist of "sharpshooters." If they are trained in the use of automatic weapons, that is sufficient. This more robust response will send a powerful message to the pirates and significantly raise the cost of their criminal business.
  5. Recommendation #31: "Task Force 151 and Operation Ocean Shield should consider the feasibility of blockading known piracy bases along the Somali and Yemeni coasts. Systematic surveillance, advanced reconnaissance, and blockades—if they could be enforced—could prevent mother ships from plying their trade far out to sea, or in the Gulf of Aden. Legal authority should flow from new UN resolutions." I agree with the recommendation, but do not believe it is realistic. I don’t see any willingness to implement such a recommendation and, therefore, question including it in the policy brief.
Image: "U.S. Coast Guardsmen with Maritime Safety and Security Team 91104 and visit, board, search and seizure team members approach a rigid-hull inflatable boat during a simulated boarding in the Gulf of Aden near the guided-missile cruiser USS Anzio (CG 68) Aug. 26, 2009. Anzio is the flagship for Combined Task Force 151, a multinational task force established to conduct counter-piracy operations under a mission-based mandate to actively deter, disrupt and suppress piracy off the coast of Somalia. (DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Brian K. Fromal, U.S. Navy/Released)." Licensed through creative commons on Flickr.

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