By John J. Metzler
UNITED NATIONS ― Armed attacks on merchant vessels and piracy off the Somali coast increased by 10 percent last year with some 445 attacks and 49 ship hijackings. And despite international defensive efforts taken by a score of navies off East Africa, “piracy is gradually becoming an organized industry,” costing shippers billions of dollars in lost revenues, according to U.N. officials.
Occasionally the latter-day buccaneers miscalculate and seize the wrong target as was the case with the hijack of a South Korean ship, Samho Jewelry. Before long, South Korean Navy commandos carried out a daring mission to free the vessel, killing eight pirates, capturing five, and freeing 21 hostages.
But this is usually the exception. Piracy has thrived in the lawlessness of Somalia where poor fishermen ply the offshore waters to prey upon unarmed merchant ships with increasingly boldness, sophistication and powerful weaponry.
Addressing a Security Council meeting, Jack Lang, the U.N. special advisor on Somali piracy stated, “There is this race between the pirates and the international community, and progressively that race is being won by the pirates.”
According to Lang, the U.N.’s point man, “Piracy has created an economy with a level of sophistication. At first it was artisan, now it has taken on an industrial scope.” The rapid sophistication of its methods, organizational structures and resources have allowed pirates to demand high ransoms, they negotiate with lawyers and ship owners, and show extreme talent in money-laundering, similar to that of a mafia.
“The problem in Somalia is there is no state; this has been the case for twenty years,” Lang stressed, adding that political instability and poverty are rife. The country is also informally divided; war-ravished Somalia itself, the relatively prosperous and stable Somaliland, and the lawless Puntaland, where many pirates operate from.
As to whether local pirates were working with Somali terrorists, Lang stressed that there “are different philosophies” between the groups. Somalia’s notorious Al Shabad Islamic militants represent “a fight for power, ideology and religion.” The pirates are primarily focused on money with no underlying political goal, although in the future there could be overlap.
Lang, a French jurist and long-time Socialist politician, calls for a multi-dimensional approach to the issue; economic, security, and judicial/penitentiary. He stressed the need for effective specialized courts to prosecute captured pirates and equally the facilities to imprison them.
Currently according to Lang, “nine out of ten” captured pirates are freed. He proposed a solution to pursue and prosecute the captured buccaneers with expanded U.N. court facilities in Arusha, Tanzania. Though the U.N. Security Council has passed a number of resolutions concerning Somali piracy, the scourge has continued unabated.
According to the London-based International Maritime Bureau, a record number of 1,000 sailors were taken hostage off Somalia last year. Somali pirates are holding 28 vessels with more than 638 crewmembers. Maritime piracy costs the world economy between $7 and $12 billion annually according to estimates.
Responding to the ongoing seaborne challenge, a number of world navies, among them the United States and a special multinational NATO task force (Belgium, France, Italy, Germany, Italy, Spain) among other European Union states, as well as South Korea, China, and India have sent ships off the East African coast to protect merchant ships with both escorts and anti-piracy patrols.
Speaking in the U.N. Security Council, Indian Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri stated, “Criminal activities in the international waters pose a serious threat to India. A large volume of India’s trade pass through the Gulf of Aden, estimated at about $110 billion annually.” He added, “India has been actively engaged in anti-piracy operations” since 2008, and a total of 28 Indian Navy ships have been deployed in the Gulf of Aden and have since safely escorted 1,487 ships.
South Korea’s dramatic rescue of a captured merchant vessel saw the capture of five culprits. When this writer asked Lang for his opinion on Korea bringing suspected pirates to justice in Seoul he responded, “This doesn’t surprise me at all,” noting there were not enough countries that accepted the responsibility of trying pirates. “These are crimes against international law.”
“This is the example to be followed,” Lang added, “I say Bravo, well done,” for Korea, the Netherlands, and Germany too, for their trials against the pirates.
It’s clear to me that the South Korean’s have offered the best lesson for these modern buccaneers; what the U.S. Navy would have called a “whiff of grapeshot” in days of old.
The Koreans were firm, focused and tough; the pirates learned an overdue lesson.
John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He’s the author of “Trans-Atlantic Divide; the USA/Euroland Gap?” (University Press, 2010). He can be reached at email@example.com.