The UN’s New Year’s ‘Resolution’: Combating Piracy Off of Somalia

by Luke A. Drabyn

Somali Piracy Warrants Action from U.N. Security Council

A Global Threat

In all likelihood, today’s pirates have neither hooks for hands nor witty parrots perched on their shoulders. What they do have, however, are rocket-propelled grenades, advanced global positioning systems, and modernized skiffs capable of quickly pursuing cargo ships and taking innocent people hostage.

This presents a grave problem, and it occurs all around the world each and every day. It is particularly severe in east Africa off of the Somali coast. Fortunately, the United Nations (UN) has addressed the issue; unfortunately, efforts have been inadequate, and they have been overshadowed by global threats perceived as more imminent.

This should change in 2015. In fact, addressing piracy should be the UN’s New Year’s resolution.

Recent research reveals that there are at least four reasons why piracy off of Somalia poses a threat to the global community. First, each year nearly 16,000 cargo ships from around the world pass through the Gulf of Aden, the narrow body of water located in the Arabian sea separating southern Yemen and northern Somalia. If pirates prevent their safe passage, the extra cost of arming the ships, or taking alternate routes, will cause global inflation. Second, piracy destabilizes the Horn of Africa by contributing to corruption and preventing necessary reform of weak governing institutions, especially in Puntland, a separatist region in northern Somalia, where “piracy provides an economic lifeline” for many clans. Third, there is a possibility that pirates may link with terrorist organizations, threatening the international community. Finally, violence from piracy might cause an environmental disaster, should an oil tanker sink, for example. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is the most appropriate body to tackle this issue since the potential hazards of piracy threaten the entire world. The five UNSC veto-holding states (the U.S., U.K., France, China, and Russia) have the most resources at their disposal to eradicate the pirate menace.

A Critique of Current Efforts

In recent years, the international community’s sea-based response to Somali piracy has been robust, and offers a good start to effectively tackling the issue. The UNSC passed Resolution 1816 in 2008, allowing countries to send warships into Somalia’s territorial waters to pursue pirates. As a result, the International Maritime Bureau recorded an unprecedented reduction in the number of pirate attacks in 2012. These coordinated efforts have worked, but they are expensive and should only be considered short-term solutions.

That said, scholars agree that finding an enduring solution means focusing on the root of the problem: land-based difficulties, like corruption and lack of economic alternatives for pirates. Clearly, addressing said difficulties is harder than it appears. A legacy of failed intervention by foreign forces—e.g., the United States’ 1993 “Black Hawk Down” catastrophe—and a decentralized, highly complex political “clan culture” throughout Somalia make it difficult to know where, and how, to approach the land-based avenue.

The UNSC can move forward by tweaking its preexisting sea-based strategies while also developing a comprehensive long-term land-based solution. A few recommendations follow.

Adjusting Sea-Based Strategies

One cost-effective and efficient way to subdue more pirates off of Somalia is to label them “sea terrorists” in existing legal frameworks. This would serve two purposes. The first is that it would allow preexisting resources to be used against the pirate threat, without any real additional cost. The second is that doing so would raise the image of Somali piracy on the global agenda, placing it more in line with the already robust global war on terrorism. There are many frameworks within which this could happen, including, but not limited to: the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes Against Internationally Protected Persons, the International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages, and the International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings, among others.

The international community, under the guidance of the UNSC, should work to set up a regional ad-hoc piracy tribunal. Pirates who are caught by warships are often released because flag states have different policies toward prosecution. Others simply release them because it is too expensive to prosecute them and keep them incarcerated. A centralized ad-hoc tribunal in a regional state such as neighboring Ethiopia would streamline the prosecution process. The host state (e.g., Ethiopia) should be given a strong financial incentive to host the tribunal. Every effort should be made by wealthier, more developed countries to subsidize this project and provide guidance, when asked for.

Finally, efforts to prevent illegal fishing off of the Somali coast by the international community should be strengthened. A large number of current pirates are former fishermen who felt the need to defend their fishing grounds from illegal fishermen from other countries. The UNSC should pressure the governments of the most frequent violators to make the punishment for illegal fishing more stringent, decreasing their incentive to violate Somalia’s waters.

Developing a Long-Term Land Strategy

It is good news that Somalia has agreed to receive aid and other forms of assistance from the international community. The UNSC should take advantage of this and focus its efforts on financially supporting a government that gives adequate representation to all the country’s various clans. Providing an annual monitoring mission, comprised of a representative selection of Somalis, could be useful here. Less violence and more security within Somalia could increase investment, which would slowly incentivize pirates to pursue less risky economic alternatives.

Finally, the UNSC should continue to vigorously pursue al-Shabaab, the Islamic terrorist organization marauding throughout much of southern Somalia. The group has frequently interfered with the transfer of humanitarian food aid during various famines in the country’s history, and has coordinated bombings throughout eastern Africa, like the September 2013 Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya. The UNSC and its member states could agree on joint missions and share intelligence about al-Shabaab’s activities. Pursuing collaborative, targeted action would give more legitimacy to the government, make the country more secure, and quicken the rate at which outside investors bolster the country economically.

In the wake of recent divisive altercations between major world powers (e.g., the United States and Europe versus Russia over Ukraine), multilateral cooperation toward Somali piracy in 2015 could act as a unifying project. As has been stated, achieving success within the next decade is realistic, so long as the global community—and especially the UNSC—can come together and focus on effecting change on land as well as on sea.

Luke Drabyn is a recent graduate of Bowdoin College and is currently working at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C.