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Fishermen & the Failed State


Last Updated: 08/13/2013 3:54 pm

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What restraints, historically, have been seen as working against curbing the activities of pirates? Why wasn’t piracy addressed sooner?
Looking at figures from the International Maritime Organization, in 2006 there were 10 recorded pirate attacks off Somalia. In 2007 there were 31, in 2008 there were 111, and as of mid-June 2009, there have been 114. Ten attacks are not going to attract attention. When you get 111 attacks, people start paying a lot of attention. Capturing a Ukrainian vessel full of tanks, ammunition, and small arms destined for southern Sudan attracts enormous attention. A super tanker loaded with oil for the US results in even more interest. When an American freighter with an American crew and captain on board are kidnapped, you really rock the meter.

The only thing that gets international attention is when international interests become adversely impacted. So long as it’s just a horrible situation on the ground in Somalia, there is little interest.

Legal ambiguities have also stymied attempts to address the piracy issue despite the fact that legally, warships from any nation may take action against piracy. The responsibility for maintaining the rule of sea falls upon the international community. What factors have been hindering the process? And why?
International maritime law is fairly clear, but different states have different guidelines, and different regional conventions, which complicate the matter. There are two other huge restraints that are still a problem today. One is the vastness of the ocean that must be monitored. Annually, 22,000 ships sail through the Gulf of Aden alone, where the majority of the attacks have taken place. Add the entire Indian Ocean area out to the Seychelles and down to a line that intersects the Tanzania-Kenya border, and you have thousands of additional ship transits. A vast ocean with huge numbers of ships passing through in need of protection is clearly a major restraint. Another problem: What do you do with the pirates when you capture them? Until recently, most pirates were released immediately because no one knew what to do with them. No one wanted to take them on board because ships do not have adequate detention facilities. Most captains decided to take them back to shore and dump them off, which, because there were no local authorities to deal with them, was tantamount to allowing them to return to piracy.

In April, Secretary of State Clinton laid out a four-point plan and tasked a diplomatic team to, among other items, consider ways to track and freeze pirate assets. What is your opinion on this?
I don’t think they go nearly far enough but at least it’s a start. You are essentially dealing with a cash operation and it’s not clear to me how you freeze suitcases full of cash that are hand-carried by couriers. The Somalis also operate a Hawala system for their own internal financial movements between the diaspora and Somalia. It is very efficient. Somalis in Minneapolis walk into a Hawala office and plunk down $105. The organization takes a $5 commission and the money stays in the office. Then a phone call goes out to a Hawala office in some town in Somalia saying, “I’ve just received $100 from Abdullahi Abdou and he wants it given to his family in Baidoa in US dollars.” The money gets delivered the same day. The Hawala works on the honor system. When you have this kind of an operation, the idea of intercepting money strikes me as a bit farcical.

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