Evaluating the Somali “Pirate” Situation

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by Beth Tuckey

For many of us, the word “pirate” conjures up a whole host of images, most notably that of a swashbuckling, patch-over-the-eye, ruthless robber. In our history texts, pirates sailed the high seas in search of treasure chests of gold, often in retaliation for maltreatment by great European empires. There is little doubt that what the Somalis are doing constitutes piracy at some level – after all, they are holding ships and people for ransom. But naming them “pirates” limits our interpretation of their story, and prohibits us from seeing the balanced history of Somalis living in coastal towns.

Though it has been unstable since independence, the nation of Somalia entered into a particularly volatile period in 1991 when its government effectively collapsed. Since then, Somali citizens have struggled to meet their daily needs, prompting the establishment of many political, rebel, and religious groups to fill the void. International actors got involved as well, and until the “black hawk down” incident, the U.S. tried, but failed, to stop the hunger epidemic emerging in the Horn of Africa. Now, more than a decade later, the U.S. is infamous among the Somali population for backing the Ethiopian invasion and occupation of 2006-2008.

European intervention has been somewhat less obvious, though no less nefarious. Having over-fished their own oceans, many European, Middle Eastern, and Asian fishing companies perceived the 1991 state collapse in Somalia as an opening to begin business in foreign waters.

These countries also saw it as a great location to dump barrels of toxic waste – something they would be unable to do off the shore of a more vigilant nation. Granted, maritime laws are tricky, and establishing ownership over the sea is something that has wrought challenges for centuries. But when actions taken in the ocean negatively affect the environment or citizens on a nearby shore, it is hard to discount their relevancy.

What the large fishing companies failed to consider (or rather, considered, but chose to ignore) were the many villages along the Somali coast whose sole means of subsistence was the fishing industry. So, like much of the rest of Somalia in the 1990’s, they began to go hungry. To make matters worse, those barrels of toxic waste began washing up on their beaches, severely polluting the coastline. This came to a head in 2005 when a tsunami broke open many containers and over 300 died from radiation poisoning. For years, Somalis had felt the effects of the waste – whether in the form of rashes, deformed babies, or other strange illnesses – but this was the first time it gained significant international attention. Thus, as fishing companies continued to trawl nearly $300 million annually worth of seafood out of Somali waters, other companies repaid the loss in the form of toxic waste.

This is the reality that has been lost to the modern-day pirate story presented in the mainstream media. As London Independent journalist Johann Hari notes in a recent article, “did we expect starving Somalians to stand passively on their beaches, paddling in our nuclear waste, and watch us snatch their fish to eat in restaurants in London and Paris and Rome?”

Over 150 ships have been hijacked over the last year by these so-called pirates, but the issue didn’t really draw public attention in the U.S. until the capture of a U.S. captain last week. Captain Richard Phillips spent days on an enclosed lifeboat, held hostage by three Somalis. He was the captain of the Maersk Alabama, a large ship that was said to be carrying food aid bound for Rwanda, Somalia, and Uganda, via the Kenyan port in Mombasa. The vessel, which was sailing under “top security” clearance, belonged to a Pentagon contractor that does nearly half a billion dollars a year in business with the U.S. government.

The hostage situation ended abruptly on Sunday with the shooting of three Somali pirates and the rescue of Captain Phillips. One of the men pointed an AK-47 at the captain, at which point the order was given to kill the hostage-takers. There is no doubt that this tragic episode greatly raises the profile – and the dangers – of the piracy situation off the coast of the Horn of Africa. A self-proclaimed pirate recently told the BBC, “from now on, if we capture foreign ships and their respective countries try to attack us, we will kill them [the hostages].”

Thus, it is not without reason that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been brought into the situation and President Obama made a public vow on Monday to “halt the rise of piracy in that region.” A plan has yet to be crafted, but the fact that Secretary Gates is more focused on the situation than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton does not bode well for the resolution of the crisis.

As we reflect on the recent history of Somalia, including the fledgling transitional governments and the off-shore piracy situation, it becomes very clear that there is no military solution to the problem. Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) very accurately stated that piracy is not the core issue, rather, “it is a symptom of a disunified government.” The young men who engage in piracy do so because they have no other options for employment or monetary gain. Their country has been unstable for too long and has served as the host of proxy wars and foreign invasions.

The issue of governance is certainly very important, but we must take it one step further by asking why Somalia has been so weak for so long and what role the international community has played. According to an independent Somali news source, about 70 percent of Somalis support piracy as a form of national defense. Indeed, many pirates call themselves the Volunteer Coast Guard and see their actions as nothing more than protection of their homeland. Of course, this does not condone violence or hostage-taking, but it should give pause to the military rallying cry around piracy.

There IS a diplomatic solution to the conflict, if the U.S. is willing to engage with Somali civil society, Somali elders, and the transitional government as legitimate actors with legitimate concerns. The U.S. must also be prepared to change its policies regarding fish bought from companies trawling Somali waters. Echoing the sentiment of much of the population, Somali journalist Mohamed Abshir Waldo writes: “With its usual double standards when such matters concern Africa, the ‘international community’ comes out in force to condemn and declare war against the Somali fishermen pirates while discreetly protecting the numerous Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing fleets there from Europe, Arabia and the Far East.”

When the U.S. backed the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006, many Somalis felt as though the United States had destroyed what little hope they had of a stable life, albeit a life under Sharia Law. It will take time to rebuild trust, and the U.S. should look to the United Nations and the African Union to come up with solutions, recommendations, and requests for reconstructing Somalia. Secretary Clinton must take the first step, ahead of Secretary Gates, to ensure that a new relationship with Somalis begins with diplomacy, rather than recalling the terrors of U.S. military might.

Furthermore, as we recall the story behind the pirates, the most important action may be to provide coastal-dwellers with some form of reparations for the damage caused by U.S., Asian, and European companies. For all of the fisherman who have lost their livelihoods to international trawlers, for all of the mothers who bear deformed children, and for all of the families who have lost their loved ones to toxic poisoning, the developed world owes something in return.

Taking responsibility for our actions should be the basis of a discussion about governance in Somalia; otherwise, we are in no position to recommend how a country ought to rule itself or to be angry when its citizens retaliate. Yes, piracy must be stopped, but so must western attitudes that we can do as we please no matter the repercussions on a foreign population. Journalist Johann Hari summed it up best by quoting an ancient pirate who told Alexander the Great: “because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you, who do it with a great fleet, are called emperor.”

Ignoring the root causes of the piracy crisis will only result in further violence and further destabilization of Somalia’s fragile government. It is time that the U.S., in conjunction with the UN, regional actors, and international corporations, takes an active, diplomatic role in Somalia’s future.

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