BUNGOMA, Kenya — Spring is the height of piracy season off the coast of Somalia.
Since 2008, when attacks accelerated in the Gulf of Aden, every few months brings news of a big hijacking — from the oil supertanker Sirius Star in 2008 to the U.S.-manned Maersk Alabama in 2009 to a Greek vessel in May 2010.
Plenty of action has been taken to combat piracy: Naval forces from more than 20 countries have been deployed; the United Nations has formed a contact group that meets quarterly; and private security contractors have offered their services to ships traversing the area.
But it remains unclear just how effective any of these measures have been. Taking a look at the anti-piracy toolkit shows a mixed picture. There have been a few modest victories, but much remains to be done before piracy in the Gulf of Aden is curbed.
1) Onboard Deterrents. Some of the most effective measures to fight piracy are happening onboard ships. The U.N.’s piracy contact group crafted and disseminated a list of “best management practices” in 2009. These include putting additional lookouts on the deck, pressurizing fire hoses so that they are ready for use, and using minimal lights at night. Though the number of attacks has increased since 2009, the percentage of successful hijackings has gone down. Many of the ships that have been successfully hijacked were not following the so-called best practices.
2) International Naval Response. There are more than 30 ships patrolling the Gulf of Aden, including NATO’s Operation Allied Protector, the European Union’s Operation Atalanta, the U.S. Naval Forces Combined Task Force 151 and independent ships from China, India, Russia and Iran. These ships talk to each other, but they do not have a unified command structure. Some military analysts say that the naval presence would be more effective operating in unison. However, there is a monthly coordination mechanism known as Shade (Shared Awareness and Deconfliction) that is jointly led by the EU and the U.S.
The international navies have adapted their responses in the past year; whereas they used to wait for an attack before taking action, they now proactively seek out “mother ships,” which pirates use for launching attacks more than 1,000 miles offshore. This technique has increased the number of pirate captures, but it hasn’t stopped the pirates from attacking. From January to April, there were 47 attacks off the east coast of Somalia, 10 more than during the same period last year.
While an increase in pirate captures would seem to be an obvious win, the reality is less clear. Many of the pirates, once caught, are fairly quickly released. According to the Washington Post, the EU force caught 275 pirates in March and April, but they released the vast majority — 235 — of them. Their weapons were confiscated, but no one is under the illusion that they aren’t going to be able to procure more (Somalia is under a U.N. arms embargo but the country is awash in guns). The U.S. Navy caught 39 pirates during the same period and released just under half of them.
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 CFR.org, Council on Foreign Relations' website.