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5 ways to stop a pirate

It's high tide for pirates off the coast of Somalia. Read what's been done about it, and how much there is left to do.

The international navies are releasing lots of pirates because no one wants to step up and prosecute them. The United States has made it clear that it will only prosecute pirates that attack U.S. vessels. The Kenyan government agreed to prosecute pirates in 2009, but after the volume of cases became clear, it recently suspended this agreement. It has now begrudgingly agreed to consider new prosecutions on a case-by-case basis.

Prosecution is the weakest link in the current international effort to combat piracy. The U.N. contact group has recommended the creation of a special “piracy chamber,” but where such a chamber would be located and who would administer it remains unclear.

4) Crackdown on land. In the absence of robust prosecution, some analysts have pinned their hopes on Somali authorities in Puntland, the northeastern area that is a stronghold for several pirate groups. In 2008, Puntland authorities did start to arrest pirate suspects, and now claims it has more than 200 convicted pirates in prison. However, a March U.N. Monitoring Group report says this effort is a sham and that senior Puntland officials have received payouts from successful hijackings. In fact, assisting the government with counterpiracy measures “is not only rewarding bad behavior, but also risks passing on counter-piracy tactics and equipment to pirate militias themselves,” the report says.

The good news is that it is possible to crack down on pirates in Somalia. The authorities in the autonomous area of Somaliland are chasing after pirates and prosecuting them in earnest. Its coast guard patrols the coastline and maintains 12 manned posts on the land that are fed intelligence from the local community.

5) Regional cooperation. There has been continued discussion of the need for a regional counter-piracy center, similar to the one located in Singapore for the Malacca Strait, another piracy hot zone. Little progress has been made thus far. The African and Arab states near the Gulf of Aden have agreed to the Djibouti Code of Conduct, but analysts say it is weak and has not produced results. As of January, the U.N. contact group had completed a needs assessment for regional cooperation, but there has been no implementation to date.

Two experts on piracy and international law, James Kraska and Brian Wilson, have suggested that regional cooperation should be modeled on the Maritime Organization of West and Central Africa. Since 2008, the organization has created four coast guard sectors with central commands; each command deals with piracy, enforcement of international treaties and illegal fishing.

Much has been made of the notion that the battle against piracy will be won on land, not on the high seas. While this may be true, it seems unlikely that Puntland’s authorities will crack down on pirate strongholds there anytime soon. Instead, the U.N. contact group should establish a “piracy chamber” in the next six months, as well as facilitate a regional agreement. Doing so will not eliminate the need for a local, land-based solution, but it will mitigate it.

Stephanie Hanson is director of policy and outreach at One Acre Fund, an agriculture organization based in Kenya. From 2006 to 2009, she covered economic and political development in Africa and Latin America for, Council on Foreign Relations' website.