Somali piracy off the Horn of Africa was once estimated by the World Bank to cost global trade billions of dollars, and to harm the fragile economies of countries in the region.
These disastrous financial costs, at a time of painful global downturn, came alongside a raft of pain and suffering for those taken hostage, some of whom died due to desperate living conditions and a lack of medical treatment.
Now, in the last few weeks, Somali piracy is back: making headlines, boarding ships, and taking hostages. Since early March, there have been numerous successful attacks, including on 1 April, when the cargo ship Al Kaushar was boarded. Eleven Indian nationals are in pirate hands.
Despite the region’s harrowing history, the five-year let-up in serious attacks has led to a collective forgetting about the dangers of Somali piracy.
Hard-won lessons about veering too close to the Somali coastline and having visible security seem to have been thrown overboard in favour of time and cost savings. Navy patrols, one of the main reasons for the lull in attacks, have decreased due to other emerging priorities that tax the scarce resources of countries.
There are four things that need to be done immediately, if we are to avoid a rerun of the early part of this decade when attacks on shipping numbered in their hundreds, dozens of hostages were held in appalling conditions, and billions were wiped off global trade.
First, it is imperative that the international community remains vigilant and commercial shipping follows the advice of navies and the International Maritime Organization when planning safe passage through the sea corridors off Somalia. Intelligence on risk, criminal gangs, the disposition of pirate boats, and recent pirate activity needs to be gathered, reviewed and swiftly transmitted.
Second, job creation aids crime prevention. What is done on land impacts action at sea. Somalia is perhaps the least developed country in the world, and we should acknowledge that the promise of pirate riches is enough to bait the hook for impoverished and jobless youth.
A survey of 66 imprisoned pirates by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime—UNODC—and Oceans Beyond Piracy (https://www.unodc.org/documents/Piracy/SomaliPrisonSurveyReport.pdf) found poverty was one of the main reasons for their criminal activity: “My family is poor, so that’s why I joined the pirates,” said one prisoner.
Advocacy about the dangers of life on the high seas, and the creation of sustainable livelihoods on land are essential. Piracy’s relationship with illegal fishing, which depletes Somalia’s resources, also needs to be fully examined, and if necessary, mitigated.
Third, the pursuit of fair criminal justice systems so pirates can be prosecuted, and if found guilty, jailed in safe and secure prisons back in Somalia. So far, 1,300 young Somali men have been held on suspicion of piracy and processed through the courts of 21 states.
UNODC, and its Nairobi-based Global Maritime Crime Programme, assists regional states in the trial and prosecution of suspected pirates, as well as supporting piracy’s many victims. Hostage release efforts are ongoing and UNODC has been involved in the freeing of 150 hostages, including last October’s release of 26 crew members from the FV Naham 3.
Stopping pirates from becoming terrorists is a priority. UNODC runs one of the world’s largest programmes on preventing violent extremism in the prisons where pirates are held. It is specifically designed to prevent the terrorist organization Al-Shabaab from radicalising and recruiting vulnerable prisoners.
Fourth, Somali maritime law enforcement agencies need to be fully supported with resources and equipment, so they can extend their reach beyond the Somali coast. UNODC is already providing training so that coastguard operations can be linked to navy operations, as well as commercial shipping movements to deter the pirates.
Many of these subjects will be discussed at a conference in London on 11 May, attended by the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, the UK Prime Minister Theresa May and the Somali President Mohamed Abullahi Mohamed.
Our own work in these areas is a model for the support offered to countries. The UN and the international community can be justly proud of these achievements; however, the London conference can build momentum for future action.
Somalia and the Horn of Africa are beset by numerous challenges, but as countries find hope in oil exploration and breathe new life into struggling economies, piracy attacks are an ever-present threat to green shoot recovery. For the sake of the people of Somalia, the international community needs to remain vigilant and to help where needed. This is no time to be caught all at sea.
Mr Fedotov is the Executive Director, UN Office on Drugs and Crime