Piracy puts global attention on Somalia's plight

BRUSSELS — No one could say the booming epidemic of piracy has been good for the majority of Somalia’s citizens, those who don’t earn anything from the million-dollar ransoms the hijackers have been successfully raking in.

But there has been one backward benefit — the entire world is now focused on Somalia, unified in its desperation to reverse the conditions that have spawned these ragtag mercenaries and allowed them to thrive virtually unchecked.

A Somalia donors conference in Brussels Thursday — co-sponsored by the United Nations, the European Union and the African Union — would normally have drawn attention from humanitarians and dutiful pledges for increased food aid from governments. But this time around, it was a much bigger crowd-puller, as a "donors conference in support of Somalia’s security." More than 30 governments and international organizations overshot the U.N.’s request for $166 million, donating a total of about $250 million in cash, equipment and training.

Piracy has finally made the international community feel Somalia’s pain.

This convergence of interests drew special mention from Somalia’s president Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. “The international community and Somalia have shared issues at this moment,” Ahmed told the conference, without mentioning piracy in particular. “So as such it’s a very interesting time in history.”

United Nations Special Representative for Somalia Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah employed a less oblique description of the “shared issues.”

“Today Somalia is a threat to itself, Somalia is a threat to the region and Somalia is a threat to the world,” he said, “with unnecessary violence and continued acts of piracy.” Ould-Abdallah went so far as to remind observers of the usefulness of failed states for terrorists, suggesting that supporting the government now will be more efficient than dealing with the consequences of the country’s continued instability.

The donations will support the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia — there are currently 4,300 employees there, but there are plans to increase that to 8,000 — and will help boost Somalia’s own forces up to 10,000 police and 5,000 other security officers. Ahmed had also asked for support for his coast guard, so they can go after pirates more effectively.

The 44-year-old sheikh was himself previously an Islamist rebel leader in the fight to control the country. He was a controversial choice when he won the presidential election in January, becoming the leader of the 15th government to try to rule Somalia in the last 18 years.

But U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said at the meeting that, “we have seen so much strong support and political will demonstrated,” both by and for Ahmed's relatively new administration. Ban agreed that this is a watershed moment for Somalia — a “crossroads,” as he called it.

In meetings with Ahmed and his foreign minister, Ban said that he had been “very much impressed by their very focused strategy and firm determination to save their country and to save their people.” In appealing for financial support from the international community, Ban also emphasized the Somali government’s responsibility to ensure that the new security forces “are inclusive and that they protect civilians and respect human rights and the rule of law.”

But that warning alone isn’t enough, said Tom Porteous of Human Rights Watch. HRW urged donors to formally attach conditions to the aid to make sure the Somali government would spend the money responsibly for the benefit of the country's long-suffering population. “It’s absolutely essential to find ways to train security forces in human-rights issues,” Porteous explained, “to vet security forces so you’re not actually providing taxpayers’ money to people who’ve been involved in some horrendous abuses in Somalia, to get rid of those or to marginalize those actors who are most responsible for serious violations of the laws of war in the past.”

None of those commitments were explicitly made in public statements following the conference. “This is not the right way forward,” Porteous said. Donors will “learn quite quickly that that has been a mistake because they won’t make any progress on achieving security for Somalia unless the human rights dimension is included in the strategy.”

And when it comes to piracy, some experts recommend looking outside of the Somali government. Lars Bangert Struwe, a researcher with the Danish Institute for Military Studies, has authored a new study on how to combat the Somali pirates, and said regardless of Ahmed’s determination and any amount of funding for his national coast guard, only a large international force — spread further than the Gulf of Aden — can effectively stop the hijackings.

Struwe agrees that the long-term solution for Somalia's instability must be attended to on the ground, and he said that in the short term, the protection currently provided by the EU, NATO and other naval vessels are also necessary. But he said there are also measures needed in the medium term, “something between just putting in the warships on a day-to-day basis and trying to solve the whole Somalia problem.” He recommends the United Nations help establish a regional force, which would operate from Egypt down to Tanzania, and which would include the rest of the countries around the Horn of Africa, such as Djibouti, Eritrea, Kenya and Saudi Arabia in addition to Somalia.

At the moment, Struwe admits that it's unlikely most of these countries will embrace his recommendations, not least because they don’t relish the idea of getting involved in Somalia’s problems.

But perhaps that will change. Somali pirates are showing themselves to be a remarkable unifying force in the rest of the world.

More GlobalPost dispatches on Somalia:

Hero captain is free

Somali refugees' path of hardship

Is there a solution for Somalia?