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Will West Follow East?

5 October, 2010

Today, the seizing of unarmed merchant marine vessels going about their legal business, transiting the seas in the Gulf of Aden area and its approaches by bands of armed pirates is almost a daily occurrence. The mercantile marine seafarers of many nations sailing in vessels in providing a living for their families face personal danger and suffering at the hands of the pirate gangs whom mercilessly prey on them on.

The Maritime Security Centre Horn of Africa (MSCHOA), established under the United Nations Security Council’s Resolutions (UNSCR) 1814, 1816 and 1838 was set up as a coordination centre for the purpose of providing freedom of navigation caused by increasing incidents of piracy attacks innocent vessels in the Somali Basin and off the Horn of Africa. The European Union through the European Naval Coordination Cell (NAVCO) set it up during September of 2008. This was followed under the above UNSCR resolutions by the setting up of European Union Naval Force Atalanta (EU NAVFOR) in November of the same year. By December, an EU Naval Task Group, supported by maritime patrol aircraft, was operating in the region.

This response to coordinate counter-piracy operations was not new and MSCHOA operating a 24/7 service is one of a number of centers providing a service to mariners with the aim is to cooperate as closely as possible with all those organisations, minimizing the number of agencies that the ship owner or master needs to deal with.

The mandate of EU NAVFOR ATALANTA is to contribute to: protection of vessels of the World Food Programme, humanitarian aid and African Union Military Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) shipping; protect vulnerable shipping, help deter, prevent and repress acts of piracy and armed robbery and to monitor fishing activities off the coast of Somalia.

EU Warships working closely with World Food Programme have delivered food into Somalia that will feed more than 2 million people. The force has been heavily involved in counter piracy in the Gulf of Aden helping to protect many of the 25000 ships that transit the region every year. More recently, the EU NAVFOR has been joined by naval vessels including China to help in monumental task of providing protection in a vast area of sea.

Piracy in all of its various forms has persisted since man first engaged in maritime adventures and may well be the second eldest “profession” in the world and the efforts to control it off Somalia no doubt come at a huge cost to many countries. The EU NAVFOR service has been provided to protect the interests of European trade and the same is true of other nations who also have a naval presence in the area for the same purpose.

While there can be no doubt that the naval forces have had an effect on the success of piracy attacks as indeed has the so-called best management practices. Yet, the attacks continue seemingly unabated, except when Mother Nature takes her course in providing seas that are too rough for the attacking skips to operate in. For many many years, shipping was able to sail unimpeded in the very waters that today incur great risk.

So why is it that in the last few years this scourge has raised its head with such abandon? Some opine that it is because of lawlessness prevailing in Somalia while others say that the root cause was the decimation of fish stocks by foreign trawlers acting illegally and with impunity and this may well in fact be right on target. Even in a lawless land with tribal based societies that derived their livelihood and sustenance from the sea. It said the first piracy incidents took place against fishing vessels themselves pirating the harvest of the ocean and thus creating hunger ashore in communities that for centauries had been utterly dependant on it for their very lives, not only their livelihood.

This is in all probability correct. Realizing how easy a target a trawler made, it would not take too much imagination to consider targeting much larger and equally vulnerable vessels offering vastly greater rewards that were also available for the picking. There is no doubt that today’s piracy in the region is a sophisticated, well organized and equipped business with perhaps the backing of jihadist elements who benefit by the funding they receive from it in furtherance of their political ideals through the use of terror and tyranny.

Harardhere was abandoned by the pirates it once haboured who deserted it prior to being occupied by Al Shabab elements who had declared that they would not allow such acts to continue. Now it seems that they have changed their minds and entered into the arena themselves albeit with landlubber soldiers who lack the navigational skills of the fishermen, but this can be easily compensated for by conscription or other means. On the other hand it seems as though the long time pirates are now arming themselves to defend the villages they control from land based attack to protect their trade from radical elements who have already demonstrated they can take over and now want a piece of the pie.

Whatever piracy in the area germinated from, it is presently a booming business and shows every sign of continuing to be so at least in the short and medium terms. Finally, we are seeing signs of success in the various courts including one in Puntland where a pirate has received the death sentence for the cold-blooded murder of a Pakistan Master. However much more needs to be done before the situation can be first controlled and then eliminated. Doubtless, this will now have to entail a political solution to the lawlessness in Somalia. If the fish stocks had not been wantonly pillaged, the whole issue of piracy in the region in all likelihood would never have arisen. As the old Chinese proverb goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

They say history has a habit of repeating itself. Politicians worldwide should bear this in mind and weigh up the situation on Africa’s West Coast. Illegally operating trawlers are engaged in eliminating fish stocks that village coastal communities are totally dependent on for their very survival. They are already feeling the pangs of hunger and watching their children dying before their eyes because they no longer have sufficient fish to eat or trade with. Looks like the same story as Somalia, does it not? True ships on the west coast are not funneled into a narrow gulf, much as fish are into a trawl, but there is not a shadow of a doubt that the Big Fish of Somalia piracy with the experience they have gain could easily expand their operations to the area even with. Today, there are reported piracy incidents on the west coast and they carried out with a greater tendency for more violence but rarely are vessels and their crews being taken. The rest of world needs to act now if not as an act of compassion for the peaceful communities that are suffering then for the very same reason they are operating off Somalia to protect their trade and commerce.

Jim Nicoll

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