Modern Piracy on the High Seas

In the last decade the lack of a centralized political power in Somalia, directed by individual poverty, social pusillanimity and ideological confrontation, has created an entropic state which is now spinning out of control expressing in diverse symptoms ranging from poverty and extremism to environmental pollution and piracy.

The increase in piracy along the Horn of Africa, centering on Somalia's coastal region is one symptom of a feeble civil society, frail international organizations such as the United Nations, powerful global banking networks and differing perceptions of the peoples on both side of the divide. Somalia has remained a failed state for over eighteen years spawning a generation of Somalis who find the civil war, anarchy and poverty quite natural. The 8 million Somalis bear both terrorism and extremism with stoic patience, believing that this is the given order of the world. Many African leaders within and outside Somalia believe that instead of attacking the pirates and extremists it is wise to negotiate with them. The Somali President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed of the Government of National Unity believes that the carrot and stick method would work best in bringing stability to his beleaguered nation. Western leaders however feel otherwise. They feel that there can be no negotiation with pirates or extremists. The only way out is military action like the one successfully mounted in the wake of the hijacked US cargo ship Maersk Alabama.

Both these approaches seem to be fraught with problems. Negotiating with pirates and extremists and conceding to their demands would create more problems. Pakistan negotiated with Taliban extremists in the SWAT region conceding to their demands by promulgating Islamic law in the region, creating a country governed effectively by two judicial systems. This concession was unable to contain Islamic belligerence and bravado. Now the Pakistani air force is bombing the Taliban out of the SWAT region displacing millions of families. Negotiating with pirates, as we have seen, has only helped them to grow richer and use their monies to buy sophisticated communication systems and powered boats that can be deployed with speed and accuracy on choppy waters and wreak havoc on maritime trade. The United Nations sanctioned the 'hot pursuit policy' last year, which authorizes navies to pursue and capture pirate boats and their mother ships. On the other hand, concerted military action would unite pirates with extremists, giving them more power to attack maritime routes with impunity. A real solution is not in sight.

Tough action is what everybody is advocating. There have been suggestions from the US, especially from its former ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, to put together a 'collation of the willing' and overrun Somalia cleaning up the pirate-infested land. The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton believes that tracking and stemming the flow of ransom money to prevent pirates from buying sophisticated weapons and faster boats would be like tackling a '17th century crime' with a '21st century solution.' The US anti-piracy task force suggests that with some help from the transitional government and warlords of Somalia it would be possible to establish a rule of law in the unstable country. Then the problem of piracy would fast disappear. Quick fixes are not new, but the problem with quick fixes is that nobody believes in them entirely, not even the people who propose them.

Pirates have been demonized by European governments and romanticized by the public at large since the mid-seventeenth century and not without reason. Governments were always keen to show pirates like the Blackbeard, Henry Morgan or Grace O'Malley as dark, evil and ruthless criminals, while the public sought their pardon knowing better. Usually those who took to piracy were more sinned against than sinning. They led miserable, lonely lives on sea where they were badly treated by dictatorial captains who would finally cheat them even on their wages. Occasionally these men mutinied and formed their own egalitarian systems at sea, democratically choosing their captains.

In a book entitled Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age, historian Marcus Rediker points out that when poor seamen become pirates it draws attention to their social class, when enslaved Africans turn pirates it poses questions of race and when women take to piracy it reveals gender issues. All those who became pirates and sailed under their Jolly Rogers were participating in a political drama exposing the ills of their nations. They represented a specific geography and a dramatic condition, which was hard to ignore both literally and metaphorically. Most pirates went to sea to prevent starvation and death exposing the irresponsibility of the state.

In 1991, when the government in Somalia went under, people not only began to suffer starvation but also the depletion of their marine resources and the pollution of their waters. It was a chaotic, free-for-all situation. The Italian mafia began dumping industrial, toxic and even nuclear wastes from European factories and hospitals around the Somalia coast while European trawlers were liberally harvesting nearly 450 million dollars worth of shrimp, tuna and lobster illegally every year. People began to get sick with heavy metals in their water. Toxic substances entered the food chain after the tsunami in 2005 and malformed children increased.

Marine piracy has a long history though 'illegal waste dumping' is new. Since 1992 environmental rules in the Anglo-American world became quite strict and it became increasingly difficult for companies to dispose toxic and nuclear waste illegally in the civilized world. In such a climate, politically or economically weak countries were easily exploited. Poor and politically weak Somalia became an ideal victim.

In response to the situation, the fishermen of Somalia formed the National Volunteer Coast Guard to police their vulnerable seas and demanded financial compensation from what analyst Mohamed Bashir Waldo calls IUU fleets (illegal unreported and unregulated fleets) from Europe, Russia, Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, India and the Far East. Thieves and robbers who took hostages and demanded ransom also joined the Somalia Coast Guard. They captured illegal Italian trawlers like MV Airone, MV De Giosa Giuseppe and MN Antonietta, all Italian registered vessels. We now call the Coast Guards pirates. The navies of powerful nations are getting together to stem this malaise, little realizing that the self-perception of the pirates is quite different from theirs. The pirates believe that these powerful nations are the real pirates for having brought things to a pretty pass.     


More by :  Mukesh Williams

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