It was thought to have largely died out by the 19th century as the increased importance of shipping to a nation’s domestic industries brought major powers together to suppress the threat of pirates. As one British court in 1817 declared, pirates are, “Enemies of the human race … creating a universal terror and alarm.”
Further international condemnation of piracy was made clear in the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, giving any nation jurisdiction over foreign ships engaging in acts of piracy. Despite these steps, the phenomenon has reared its ugly head in recent years, and was again brought to the attention of the American news media last week when a Navy SEALs unit rescued two captured aid workers being held by Somali pirates, less than a year after a similar operation led to the death of Osama bin Laden.
The kidnapping of American Jessica Buchanan and Dane Poul Thisted in Somalia is only the latest in a long list of pirate activities over recent years, with the East African country being the epicenter of modern-day piracy. Some 1,000 Somalis are thought to be involved in piracy today, a threat from which no nation has found itself to be immune. Piracy off the Somali coast is estimated to cost around $16 billion to international trade each year, not to mention the revenues collected through ransom (an estimated $238 million in 2010).
The enormity of the problem lies in Somalia’s geographic location. Sitting on the Indian Ocean, Somalia falls within close proximity to major shipping routes, most notably from India and the Arabian Peninsula. Its northern coast sits adjacent to the Gulf of Aden, a narrow thoroughfare at the south end of the Red Sea through which some 21,000 ships pass every year. Among other commodities, the shipping route is crucial to the export of Persian Gulf oil.
In seeking to address piracy in Somalia, it is first important to understand some of its underlying causes. To start, Somalia is a largely lawless country, and has been since the civil war in 1991 which led to the infamous failed intervention by U.S. armed forces. The sitting government has a degree of control over the capital Mogadishu, yet warlords, militant groups and, of course, pirates control major areas of the country.
With the Somali navy disbanded after the civil war, and with no coast guard to protect Somali maritime interests, many pirates claim to be merely defending the Somali shores from others. The activity has become a draw for local fishermen who seek to prevent foreign ships from dumping toxic waste in Somalia’s waters, or illegal fishing vessels taking advantage of the lack of official enforcement.
Others have turned to piracy as a means of survival in what has become a destitute homeland. The recent famine highlights what has been a problem for years: that most Somalis struggle to meet their everyday needs and the lucrative gains of piracy lure in desperate individuals.
To deal with piracy effectively, these issues must be considered. The eradication of terrorism will never be successful when the primary strategy is to kill or capture those engaged in terrorism rather than address the underlying causes of the problem. Similarly, killing pirates only opens up a gap in the market for new pirates. To neutralize the problem, Somalia must achieve a state of political stability and authority, and its people given sufficient opportunity to deter them from illegal practices.
Additionally, the weak Somali government should be supported by other nations and intergovernmental organizations such as the U.N. in protecting its own territorial waters and the fishing industry, since the current government has little ability to enforce the above-named U.N. Convention.
In the meantime, pirates will continue to operate despite the risks posed by rescue operations such as that of last week, in which all nine captors involved were killed. Tactics may change and the danger posed to captives may become more severe as the pirates seek new ways to ward off opponents. The international community, however, is growing ever more impatient of such activities and the days of extensive piracy are surely numbered.