11 February 2006

Kenya: U.S. Steps Up War Against Somali Pirates

Nairobi — The United States Navy has put Somali pirates operating in the Indian Ocean on notice: They will be intercepted, pursued, arrested and handed over to coastal states for trial (or taken to US navy base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba).

On January 20 the United States fired the first warning shots when it dispatched the guided-missile destroyer USS Winston S. Churchill and other US naval forces to intercept a suspected pirate ship in the Indian Ocean. The destroyer located the vessel approximately 87 kilometres off the coast of Somalia and pursued it through the night and into the next morning.

According to one account, it took the US warship several hours of manoeuvring and firing warning shots to get the suspect pirate ship to surrender. Then the US marines arrested a gang of 10 suspected Somali pirates aboard the India-registered vessel MV Safina al-Birsarat with 16 crew members. The US Navy handed over to Kenyan authorities the suspected pirates, who were last week charged in a Mombasa court.

Territorial waters

The US Navy acted on a report from the Piracy Reporting Centre of the International Maritime Bureau's (IMB). Based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the centre monitors piracy all over the world and publishes piracy warnings round-the-clock. By ordering its destroyer to intercept the suspected pirates, the Navy moved away from its traditional reluctance to take on pirates outside US territorial waters.

It is now official. Pirates, like terrorists, can run but they cannot hide. Not only along the coast of Somalia, which is currently the world's most dangerous waters for pirate activities, but also along areas in Southeast Asia such as the Straits of Malacca that are traditional havens for pirates.

The United States does not anymore see the difference between pirates and terrorists, and with good reason. A study carried out by the Piracy Reporting Centre says that freighters carrying payloads of fuel could be hijacked and used in terror operations similar to the 11 September attacks on America. There is real fear that terrorists could, for example, use a ship transporting liquefied natural gas as a weapon.

In any case, action by the US Navy will benefit Kenya because of the dangers posed by pirates to the country's tourism and maritime trade. The shores off the East African coast are important sea-lanes for cargo ships and luxury cruise liners. And many of the cargo ships are oil supertankers and attacks on them could trigger environmental disasters through crude oil spillage.

The modus operandi of the pirates makes such possibilities real. Pirates in Somali waters attack with heavy firearms everything that floats, from fishing vessels and yachts to bulk carriers, general cargo ships and tankers. Their aim is to steal valuables from the ship, or hold the crew for ransom. IMB says it has received reports of Somali pirates armed with automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenades, firing indiscriminately in attempts to force such vessels to stop.

"The lack of any stable or coherent government in Somalia is contributing to this lawlessness in its waters. Local warlords are interested in making money above all else, and hijacking commercial vessels has proven to be an expedient method of doing so," notes Captain Pottengal Mukundan, director of IMB.

The good news is that all pirates are international outlaws triable by any and every state. Any state may seize a pirate ship or aircraft, arrest the persons, seize the property on board and try the persons or hand them over to another state.

International law has long recognised a general duty of all states to cooperate in repressing piracy. The 1982 Law of the Sea Convention provides that all states "shall cooperate to the fullest possible extent in the repression of piracy on the high seas or in any other place outside the jurisdiction of any state."

Principal delegates

Kenya, incidentally, is not only a signatory of the Convention but also was very influential in its formulation through its principal delegates to the Convention, lawyers Felix Njenga and Andronico Adede.

In apprehending the 10 suspected Somali pirates, USS Winston S. Churchill did just what international law requires of any warship. But while the US Navy has shown that it will take all appropriate measures to respond to incidents of piracy on the high seas, it is obvious that it will not always be on hand to do so on the entire 3,898 kilometres of Somali coastline, the longest in Africa. Ships may still have to rely on their own vigilance and resources to prevent attacks.

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