19 May 2014

Somalia: Somali Piracy Curbed, but Still a Threat

Flanked by a mother ship, pirates approach vulnerable shipping vessels and tourist-chartered yachts on small skiffs. Armed with rocket-propelled grenades and small weapons, they use hooks, chains, and ladders to scale the ship.

Once onboard, the pirates intimidate, terrorize, and overtake the captain and crew, who are then likely to be transported to Somali territory and held for ransom.

Just a few years ago, this scenario was one that many seafarers feared when traveling through the Horn of Africa. Now, instances of piracy off Somalia's shores are down from 163 in 2009 to two in 2013, the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS) said at a press conference at the United Nations on Wednesday.

CGPCS is a coalition of 80 countries, seafarers' organizations, and NGOs that was organized in 2009 to counter the growing threat of piracy off the coast of Somalia, a country then considered to be a lawless state.

As a result of the organization's work, piracy is at its lowest level since the peak of the crisis in 2011. In February 2014, the United States passed the chairmanship of the CGPCS to the European Union, whose representatives underscored the need for continued vigilance.

"The main message is that the job is not done yet," said Maciej Popowski, Deputy Secretary-General of the EU External Action Service and chair of the group. "The piracy business model is fractured, but not broken."

Popowski said that although the number of attacks has decreased to a handful a year, there are currently 49 hostages being held by pirates; 1,400 pirates are presently jailed in 21 states across the world.

"Somalia, at that time, was a failed state, so piracy became a mode of economic income for pirates," Theodore Karasik, Director for Research & Consultancy at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, told MediaGlobal News. "They were able to develop a pirate economic model that brought them a great deal of income. The phenomenon of kidnapping people for ransom was quite rampant."

The drop in piracy over the past five years is due primarily to an extensive international navy patrol effort spearheaded by NATO and the EU. At any time, there are some 20 warships deployed in the area, providing a safe passageway through the channel.

Additionally, commercial ships have adopted improved protection practices, such as lifting the ships' ladders and traveling at speeds higher than 34 kilometers per hour.

In an effort to continue to suppress piracy, CGPCS promotes development in the region, where experts say a lack of economic opportunities drives Somalis into illegal industries.

"If the young Somalis have a better idea of making a living than pirating at sea, they'll certainly do it. They don't want to be recognized as pirates and crooks," said Popowski.

Donna Hopkins, Coordinator of Counter Piracy and Maritime Security at the US Department of State, disagrees.

"Personally, I don't believe pirates are born out of poverty," Hopkins told MediaGlobal News. "Not all poor people revert to the immoral practice of kidnapping for ransom. Pirates are just rotten guys that want to make a quick buck."

In addition to Somalia's stagnant job market, another challenge CGPCS faces is how to patrol an area of approximately 4 million square kilometers - equivalent to one and a half times the size of mainland Europe. The cost of keeping tabs on such a sizable area was $1.09 billion in 2012, according to Oceans Beyond Piracy's 2012 Economic Cost of Piracy report.

"We need to maintain our vigilance," Hopkins told MediaGlobal News. "The Contact Group's work is not done. It looks like the crisis has passed, but it could resurge if any of us bring down our defenses. We need to keep the patrols in the region and continue to urge all international aid donors to help develop the Somali coastline."

Karasik warns that the international community must be vigilant about piracy in other regions, as well.

"We have to watch for other parts of the world where pirates will emerge because they've seen the ability of Somali pirates to make money from this economic model," Karasik told MediaGlobal News, citing a surge in piracy in West Africa and the Gulf of Guinea.

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