Kurt Bodewig Bundesminister a.D.

Piracy – A Threat to the International Community: An economic problem rooted in Somalia’s lack of governance and rule-of-law structures


Bodewig, Kurt (2009): Piracy – A Threat to the International Community: An economic problem rooted in Somalia’s lack of governance and rule-of-law structures. IMS (September 2009).

First the bad news: there is no sign of any downturn in piracy off the Horn of Africa. On the contrary: the number of pirate attacks planned and carried out more than doubled in the first half of 2009 compared with the same period a year ago. According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), 240 pirate attacks were carried out worldwide in the first half of this year. The year’s second quarter alone saw 136 reports of piracy, with 561 crew members taken hostage. The level of violence seen in the hijacks continued to rise, with 19 crew members injured, some seriously, and six killed.

Now for the good news: 31 of these attacks were thwarted by EU NAVFOR Operation Atalanta – the EU naval operation against piracy – with the arrest of more than 250 pirates. The strait off the Horn of Africa is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Around 4700 ships have registered on the EU website this year to be escorted through it by one of the 13 patrolling naval vessels (frigates and corvettes) from Germany, France, Sweden, the UK, Italy and Spain.

Convoys have escorted the World Food Programme ships taking supplies to Somalia – a country devastated and fragmented by civil war – 25 times. In the first half of 2009, more than 180,000 tonnes of food for the population of 1.8 million successfully entered the country under EU NAVFOR escort as part of Operation Atalanta. It is downright cynical of the pirates to target their attacks on WFP ships, especially in the waters off the coast of the semiautonomous region of Puntland. The ships are old and slow. They are easy prey for the pirates, who usually travel in speedboats. That is why they have to be escorted by the EU NAVFOR force or vessels from task forces of other countries such as the United States, China, India, Russia or Japan. The pirates have responded by operating over a wider area. Traditional fishing boats, known as dhows, are being used as "mother ships" for the pirates. In some cases, the dhows themselves have been hijacked; in others, they are hired in the expectation of a sizeable ransom from the capture of a larger vessel.

Operation Atalanta has 10 frigates, each of which monitors an area averaging around 320 square km. As I have seen for myself, reconnaissance aircraft are also playing an effective role – they have a good record of spotting suspect boats and the mother ships from which the pirates operate. The international community is treating the hijacks as an attack on the world’s lifelines: time and again, all the operational units of the various task forces have been mobilized with maximum speed.

Modern piracy has nothing in common with the romance of 1950s Hollywood movies. Today, piracy is a brutal, unscrupulous business. It is thought that its backers do not just live in Somalia – they are located all over the world, from Nairobi to London. A chain of mutually dependent jobs has turned piracy into a flourishing business and a new form of organized crime. In addition to the hijackers themselves (who are paid the least), there are translators, lawyers, negotiators and even press spokesmen to step up the pressure on ship owners. The seamless coordination between the various players in this brutal game is plain for everyone to see.

The military escort vessels are restrained in their use of force in an effort to avoid any escalation. Military units travelling in helicopters or fast escort boats have usually been able to prevent attacks. Even so, there have been cases in which the direct use of armed force has resulted in deaths, not only among the pirates but also among their hostages. More than 100 hostages are still being held by the pirates, who are totally unscrupulous. This was apparent from the recent murder of the leader of the hijackers on the vessel MV Marathon. He became the victim of his own money distribution machine.

And yet despite this worrying scenario, the measures being taken by Operation Atalanta and the US-led multinational Combined Task Forces 150 (CTF-150) and 151 (CTF-151) are proving successful. With their military escorts, the convoys can travel safely, and in a monitoring area of more than 2 million square km, the coordination measures are proving successful. The international cooperation is particularly effective. Communication between the European Union’s naval operation at headquarters in Northwood (UK) with the other task force HQs is working very well. The rapid reaction and mutual support at sea have proved their worth.

It is vital to avoid escalating the situation on board the hijacked vessels. The ship owners themselves say that amending Germany’s constitution, the Basic Law, to allow the Federal Armed Forces to free hostages on hijacked vessels by force is not the solution, and drawing on the services of paramilitary security companies such as Blackwater – which deploys mercenaries to Iraq – is also seen as likely to lead to further escalation of violence. More extensive use of security technologies that allow contact to be established rapidly with escort vessels is essential, however.

EU Justice Ministers have signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Kenyan Government under which Kenya has agreed to receive and prosecute suspected pirates in Nairobi. This is a very sensible move. The legal situation in the task force countries varies widely, so some sort of international arrangement is essential. A possible solution is to set up an international tribunal to deal with piracy, akin to the International Criminal Court established in The Hague to prosecute crimes such as genocide and other grave human rights violations. Alternatively, the mandate of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg could be expanded to include the prosecution of piracy, if this were deemed appropriate. Both these solutions require international agreements at UN level. In view of the threat scenario, in which a possible link with terrorist structures that put the international community at risk cannot be ruled out, the UN Security Council could address this issue at the earliest opportunity. As almost all the countries on the UN Security Council are participating in the various anti-piracy naval task forces, this solution has potential, in my view, and is certainly in the participating countries’ own interests.

Insurers are demanding a high price for covering the risks associated with piracy. Insurance brokers estimate that ship owners are now paying as much as 30,000 US dollars premium for three million dollars of cover for a single journey through the Gulf of Aden. Insurance prices have increased ten-fold in the last four months. These soaring insurance premiums are being driven by the ransom payments. Many shipping companies are therefore opting to take the much longer route around the Cape of Good Hope instead, resulting not only in longer time at sea but also in massive revenue losses for the Suez Canal. Changes in shipping routes alter the core structures of maritime transport, and with a large proportion of the world’s oil and gas transiting the waters in this region, this has implications for global energy security as well.

Besides the dramatic fates of the hostages and the suffering of their families, there is another – economic – factor in play. Ransoms are increasing. In 2008, the ransoms paid ran into tens of millions of dollars. In Somalia alone, there are now nine competing pirate groups investing in weapons, boats and communications equipment. One pirate, known as Yassem, describes himself as an investor: “I have staff to do the work for me now.”

Rigorous strategies for dealing with piracy are needed to prevent this new type of organized crime from developing further. Targeted measures are required to break this economy of terror. Above all, this means “following the money”. Usually, ransoms are handed over in used notes and passed through unconventional channels – but the criminal masterminds behind the operations could well be in Nairobi or London. The money trails and financial flows need to be analysed and disclosed.

Above all, though, it is vital to support the renewal of government and state structures in Somalia as a means of combating piracy from terra firma as well. In my view, projects such as a coastguard training centre for East African countries, as proposed by Djibouti, should be given particularly high priority. Investment in the development of local and national governance structures is useful and necessary.

The industrialized countries and emerging nations must make a material contribution to offer future prospects to those who make their living from the sea, since foreign countries have overfished Somali waters and the 2004 tsunami wrecked the fishermen’s infrastructure. Every investment in the development of civil structures in Somalia helps to cut the ground from under corruption and organized crime. Supporting international agreements which stop the overfishing of Somalia’s waters off the Horn of Africa and promote the revival of the fishing industry is just as important as developing economic structures which offer people a genuine alternative on land as well. There is still time for a Marshall Plan against piracy, aimed at developing these structures. Both aspects have an important role to play. It is in our own interests to tackle these issues with commitment and energy.