Somalia’s Piracy Offers Lessons in Global Governance

By Christopher Jasparro
Created: April 16, 2009 Last Updated: November 30, -0001
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Maersk-Alabama Capt. Richard Phillips (R) stands alongside Cmdr. Frank Castellano, commanding officer of USS Bainbridge after being rescued by U.S Naval Forces April 12, 2009 off the coast of Somalia.   (U.S. Navy via Getty Images)

Maersk-Alabama Capt. Richard Phillips (R) stands alongside Cmdr. Frank Castellano, commanding officer of USS Bainbridge after being rescued by U.S Naval Forces April 12, 2009 off the coast of Somalia. (U.S. Navy via Getty Images)

International anti-piracy operations off Somalia have attracted multinational media attention and have largely been heralded as a noble effort to protect the global commons. The unanimous passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1851, in December 2008 authorizing members to take all necessary actions against Somali piracy has been cited as a rare instance of the Council’s decisiveness and unity. A closer consideration of the issues involved, on the contrary, reveals it to be pyrrhic victory that masks long-term failure in local and international governance that would ensure continued insecurity.

The wave of piracy off Somalia began in 1991 following the collapse of the Barre regime. Dumping of toxic and hazardous wastes by international companies (possibly with organized crime involvement) increased. Unlicensed foreign fishing vessels eagerly targeted Somalia’s fish-rich waters. Local fishermen claimed that foreign boats used intimidation tactics such as ramming and hiring local militants to harass them.

In response disaffected fishermen then began attacking foreign vessels in the early 1990s, ultimately leading to full-scale piracy and hostage-taking. In 2005 a UN agency estimated that 700 foreign fishing vessels were operating in Somali waters, many employing illegal and destructive fishing methods.

In 2006 the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a coalition of Islamist courts (that had sprung up to provide local law and order after 1991) seeking to create an Islamist state seized power in most of southern Somalia. They reasserted some control over Somali waters: foreign incursions and piracy declined. Ethiopia (supported by the United States and the West) invaded Somalia in order to oust the ICU. After the ICU’s ouster the chaos off Somali’s coast increased. Fishermen fruitlessly complained to the UN about renewed poaching and dumping.

Ahmedou Ould Abdallah, U.N. Special Envoy for Somalia, in July 2008 called the situation “…a disaster off the Somali coast, a disaster [for] the Somali environment, [and] the Somali population.” The situation that developed has been described by Peter Lehr, of St. Andrew’s University, as “a resource swap” with Somalis taking $100 million annually in ransoms while Europeans and Asians poach $300 million in fish.

What began as a defensive movement by local fishermen has evolved into a complex amalgamation of banditry, organized crime, freebooting, and insurgency targeting all types of vessels from fishing trawlers to oil tankers. Somali waters emerged as the hotbed of piracy, accounting for close to 32% of attacks reported globally between January and September 2008.

In his briefing on Resolution 1851, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon did emphasize, “Anti-piracy efforts, therefore, must be placed in a comprehensive approach that fostered an inclusive peace process in Somalia and assisted the parties to rebuild security, governance capacity, addressed human rights issues, and harnessed economic opportunities throughout the country.”

The Secretary-General also noted that he appealed to 50 countries to commit resources for a broader multinational force for Somalia, yet he could find no state willing to take the lead. The international response has been almost entirely naval. At least 20 countries have committed or promised ships for what, on the surface, looks like a 19th century punitive expedition where the strong collude to protect their economic interests while protecting “civilizing” efforts (in this case delivery of food aid).

While over half the nations contributing ships are major global or Indian Ocean fishing nations; none have offered significant resources to help address the deeper roots of piracy.

The fact remains that the UN has failed to include in its resolution 1851 the enforcement of Somalia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) or the relevant convention that bars dumping of toxic waste.

Lessons Learnt

What insights can be gleaned from this situation? Three points stand-out.

First, it is now assumed axiomatic that un- or under-governed spaces have become breeding grounds for rogue groups threatening the international community and global economic system. However, this assumption is incomplete. Weakly governed and failed states are often themselves victimized by foreigners.

Second, that the nature of warfare has changed is another accepted truth. War is no longer characterized primarily by conventional clashes between states, but fought “amongst the people” by combatants including not only states but hybrid networks of, criminal gangs, insurgents, and international terrorists.
Third, despite the prevalence of rhetoric about preventing threats through human security, states often resort to application of force—in pursuit of short-term, self-interests. Ultimately, the will and capacity to pursue comprehensive strategies that protect both the “winners” and “losers” of globalization appear insufficient.

This begs the question of whether the global commons really can be secured for the common good. Yet such a question must be answered soon as global inequalities, economic recession, degradation of and competition over natural resources, climate change, and demographic pressures threaten not just the weak but all humanity.

Christopher Jasparro is Associate Professor, National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author. Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online-(c) 2009 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.


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