What is wrong with the international community that it cannot get a grip on a small band of Somali pirates? Piracy has been
on the increase off the coast of Somalia since the 1990s yet has only exploded in the past two years. In 2008 the number of
piratical attacks rose astronomically until here we are, seeing out 2009 with barely a week passing without some new incident.
The latest - at the time of writing - is the seizure of a 300,000 tons Greek-owned super tanker, with a crew of 28, carrying millions
of pounds worth of Saudi oil bound for the USA. Quite apart from the financial losses and the money which flows from ransoms
paid into the coffers of the lawless, whether criminals or terrorists, lives are put at risk. Not only seamen suffer, but much needed humanitarian aid carried in ships chartered by the World Food Programme for starving peoples in East Africa is delayed, and
traffic through the Gulf of Aden, which carries 10 per cent of the world’s trade in over 20,000 ships each year, is also under threat.
The 2008 (so-called) Djibouti Code of Conduct committed states to improved communications, improved situational awareness
and enhanced capabilities of local coast guards. There is a maritime corridor through which ships are escorted and great energies
are expended in training merchant vessels to outrun pirates or deter them via passive defences. There are multiple task groups at
sea hunting the miscreants down but operating under such soft Rules of Engagement (ROE) that the most pirates get is a smack
on the wrist, their guns confiscated and their skiffs machine-gunned. It is a huge game of catch and release and, in the case of a
British couple taken hostage at sea recently from their yacht, merely a watching game. A UK naval vessel, the RFA Wave Knight,
with a helicopter embarked and also Royal Marines, and with weaponry, was restricted to simply watching the unfortunate Britons, who were deeply unwise to have sailed into troubled waters, as they were carted off to imprisonment. Under the Royal Navy’s
ROE, the short-term safety of UK citizens apparently overrode wider concerns to put an end to piracy. Earlier, when Wave Knight did help to capture suspected pirates who had attacked a merchant ship, the seaborne thugs were set free because, despite there being 13 hostages and weapons found by naval crews, they were not actually captured in the act of piracy. In respect to the yachting
couple incident there have also been claims that London micro-managed the Wave Knight and did not have the courage to let the Royal Marines and other naval personnel do their job as they judged best - and for which they have been highly trained – with Whitehall allegedly twice standing down a rescue team. The official Ministry of Defence line is, however, that the decision not to try
and rescue the yachting couple was the correct one in the circumstances and that there was no interference from the London
end in tactical judgements.
MEANWHILE, other reports say that more than 340 suspected Somali pirates were captured by multinational naval forces in the
past year, but released on the advice of lawyers that, unless they were caught in the act of piracy, no crime had been committed.
There is also the concern that should suspected pirates be taken onboard they might claim asylum. Julian Brazier, a UK-based Conservative Party shipping spokesman says: “It’s shameful that so many pirates are being returned to do it again. The fault lies
not with the hard-pressed naval commanders but the ridiculous rules of engagement and operating instructions they are given by
their political masters.” Agreed, political and economic improvements ashore in Somalia are the only long-term way to end piracy
in this part of the Indian Ocean, but meanwhile it is essential to maintain warships and Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) offshore until
the rule of government can be restored. Traffic will continue to be routed well away from the Somali coast, convoys instituted and merchant ships will be better prepared to defend themselves. As for the pirates themselves, the problem is an old one, a familiar
trade that will never be completely stamped out, but there are historical precedents to draw on. Odin believes only firm measures
can end a threat from the Somali pirates which, sooner or later, will lead to a major incident and serious loss of life. Perhaps a
shoot on sight policy should be implemented along with punitive raids on piratical havens? Yes, this will change the rules of the
game at sea - but ultimately, provided the navies keep up the pressure the pirates will increasingly realise it is a game not worth
the risk. Slavery was stamped out on the east coast of Africa by the slavers either being killed or brought to trial. Today, without
severe punishment there is also the nexus of piracy and terrorism to worry about - with the former fuelling the latter, providing
much needed funds. With Al-Qaeda on the rise in Yemen and in the Horn of Africa, while the West is distracted in fighting the
Taliban in Afghanistan - we should also worry that the next 9-11 will be funded and planned in, or close to, the very pirate
havens the international community is so scared to eradicate.