Countering Somali Piracy – All International Eggs in one Basket?*

* Moderator’s Note: Reprinted with permission from Seaways, Journal of the Nautical Institute, September 2009, pp. 30-31.

The focused intervention of foreign naval forces off the coast of Somalia raises as many questions as it answers.  Why Somalia and not Nigeria or Indonesia?  Why so much emphasis on treating it as a simple maritime issue rather than looking at its root causes? Why has international law proved so ineffective in dealing with piracy?  This article will examine the issue and context of somali piracy as well as offer some advice on self-protection measures for merchant ships.  The International Institute for Strategic Studies recently produced an informative and readable fact sheet on the issue of somali piracy.  Its author makes some direct and apposite observations over both the threat to the merchant community and the nature of the international response. This work is highly recommended and would be of value to those working in corporate offices within the maritime industry and to those in command at sea as a short digest of the issue.

Piracy in one form or another has existed for centuries but why has Somali piracy captured such international attention, when incidences of piracy in Nigeria or Indonesia fail the headline test?  To my mind, this is because Somalia has provided the global media with a very newsworthy series of stories in which dramatic images of captured merchant ships and their crews can be played out in front of an increasingly “sea-blind” home audience.  They have managed to deliver news spectaculars in which super-tankers, vessels carrying tanks or weapons have been held hostage and critically individual personal stories in which Western hostages have been freed in daring special forces’ missions.  All of these are manna from heaven for a western news media hungry for stories, which offer a new angle on the desperate nature of life in the failed state of Somalia.

There is no doubt civilian sea-farers can do more to help themselves when transiting areas of risk.   Arming seafarers is a common cry but are ship owners and crewing agencies going to pay the training bill to keep weapon handling and tactical skills are an appropriate level?  The answer is probably not but collective / corporate responses like transit convoys, registering with regional naval forces, embarking military personnel / private security companies, implementing self protection measures such as vessel lock-downs and extra on-watch crew all make their ships less attractive and harder to assault than those who do not implement these relatively easy counter-measures.

A review of Operation Atalanta, the EUNAVFOR (European Union Naval Force) mission shows a highly evolved and focused naval mission which in conjunction with the activities of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet and those of other interested countries has become one of the largest international military activities seen outside of combat operations in recent years.  But is this surge of military activity the right course of action or is it sustainable?  How many of the countries currently involved will still be able to send ships and personnel in a year or even in a decade?  History has taught us that such military adventures are the thin edge of a longer term and enduring wedge.  The Royal Navy’s decision to gap its on-station warship in the Falkland Islands in preference to its contribution to counter piracy operations off the Horn of Africa is reflective of its need to retain command of the deployed EUNAVFOR for political reasons but also illustrates a failure to balance its commitments and resources.  After-all the argument must go “no contribution, no task-force command” and the Royal Navy needs this deployed command so it can justify its current command structure to an over-stretched, battle weary Army or an overly ambitious, maritime sceptic Royal Air Force?

While talk of surge activity is common in the fight against insurgents or terrorists, such activity seems incongruous in the maritime context.  Unlike the comprehensive military campaigns being waged in Iraq or Afghanistan there seems to be little activity, apart from guaranteeing the security of food aid convoys, which is looking to address the break-down of Somali society or the very reasons why piracy developed in the Horn of Africa.  If the excellent work of Generals David Patraeus and James Mattis can be adapted for this maritime campaign then perhaps the recent lessons learnt on their turf could be applied in the maritime surf.  Piracy is only in part a maritime issue because its root causes are political, economic and social.  Failure to address these is a sure-fire guarantee of this becoming an enduring issue.

Questions over the viability or value of certain countries military responses have been raised across the globe.  Naval vessels deployed to the region without robust Rules of Engagement or the capability to deter incidents of Piracy are very much paper tigers, whose contribution is purely political.  HMCS Winnipeg’s recent deployment saw the Canadian public opinion question the value of sending such a capable unit for an extended deployment with only the ability to detain, to disarm and to release persons suspected of piracy.  The British government’s much heralded bilateral agreement with Kenya, which allows for suspects to be tried in Kenyan courts, just illustrates the failure of today’s international law in dealing with this increasingly violent problem.

The value of delivering a regional solution rather than imposing one from outside cannot be overstated.  Up until now for the want of equipment, expertise and resources neighbouring states have been unable to contribute more effectively in the battle against the pirates.  There are pleasing examples of where Western nations are now building local capacity to redress years of political under-investment in the region but these will all take time.  Yet it is hoped that just as a capable Iraqi Navy now patrols its own territorial waters under the guidance of the coalition Task Group, so in years to come the likes of Yemen, Kenya, Djibouti and Somalia will be able to deter piracy in their own waters and protect the 20% of global trade that passes through the Bab el Mandeb.  Here the excellent work undertaken by the Royal Navy, amongst others, in Iraq and Nigeria can be used to great effect.  There we saw training teams deployed into theatre to deliver the capacity building required delivering viable water-borne law enforcement, but if this job is to be done then unlike Iraq it must be resourced appropriately so that full local technical co-operation and participation can be achieved.

At the moment Flag Officer Sea training in Plymouth is providing its usual brand of focused and realistic training for NATO navies deploying East of Suez.  Its combination of Task Group and individual platform training is complemented by mobile, deployable teams who add polish to units on their transit to operations.  This work is essential if those asked to discharge dangerous military missions are to be fully prepared for what challenges lie ahead.  Yet in this resource driven world, we must hope that the work of such organisations is not viewed by those who only know its financial cost and not its long term value.

Countering piracy is one of the clearest examples of how many navies are responding to today’s security challenges with both Cold War doctrine and equipment.  Despite nearly a generation passing more appropriate equipment and platforms is still a long way off.  Perhaps only the USN is able to field modern bespoke ships that are custom built for this sort of task.  Yet although the train of progress is slow there are clear examples of countries that recognise the value of constabulary maritime activity to their national security.  The recent Australian Defence White Paper does exactly that, unequivocally showing Australia’s resolve to procure and deploy a strong, capable navy to provide defence in depth of its national interests.

Legal problems and seemingly inappropriate rules of engagement have done much to hamstring an effective response to either piracy or maritime based terrorism.  There is a plethora of international law which should deal with these issues but in the case of Somalia we see almost a “back to the drawing board” stance being taken by military lawyers who scramble between establishing hasty bilateral agreements with neighbouring states and compromising a commander’s ability to conduct their mission with heavily caveated rules of engagement.  From an outsider’s perspective the lack of prosecutions under existing international agreements like ISPS or SUA suggests they are not being used at this time of greatest need because they are not up to the mark.

In conclusion, Somali piracy is not an easy problem to solve but with collective military, legal and commercial collaboration it is highly likely that it can be managed effectively.  Measured and sustainable military activity which addresses regional shortfalls is required in the short-term until a viable and resourced regional solution can be established.  The international community is guilty on focusing upon this one region as a cause celebre and as a consequence it has forgotten that piracy is a widespread issue.  All hotbeds of piracy require international collaboration and action unless we are to sacrifice the safety and welfare of seafarers as they go about their professional lives whereever that may be.  The lessons being identified off Somalia need to be learnt and then applied whereever piracy occurs.