Pirate flag skull and crossbones. Photo by <br><a href="http://flickr.com/photos/nickhumphries/1405653435/">Nick Humphries</a> (<a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/deed.en">CC</a>).
Pirate flag skull and crossbones. Photo by
Nick Humphries (CC).

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Briefings: Somali Pirates Scuttle Sea Laws

Nov 18, 2008

Where there is a sea, there are pirates.
–Greek proverb

Armed with automatic weapons and confident in their ability to extort millions of dollars, pirates are once again trolling the high seas in search of booty. Since 2007, piracy is up at least 300 percent.

More than 75 ships have been attacked, boarded, or hijacked this year in the Gulf of Aden, the crucial shipping lane at the egress of the Red Sea. At least 12 ships, including a Saudi oil supertanker, are being held for ransom by pirates based in the impoverished east African nation of Somalia—it is the world's pirate hot spot.

"Over the long term, going back to antiquity, any time you have poor people with access to maritime technology who live near shipping lanes, they will try to steal," said University of Pittsburgh historian Marcus Rediker in an interview with Policy Innovations.

Somalia has been without an effective central government since the collapse of the Mohamed Siad Barre government in 1991. The country is largely ruled by warlords.

"We don't consider ourselves sea bandits," a pirate spokesman told the New York Times. "We consider sea bandits those who illegally fish in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas. We are simply patrolling our seas. Think of us like a coast guard."

In 2005, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) issued a report accusing European companies of illegally dumping hazardous chemicals such as uranium, lead, and mercury in Somalia's coastal waters. Storm waves from the Asian tsunami of December 2004 stirred up this toxic brew of industrial waste, reportedly sickening coastal residents.

The pirates may cast themselves as a vigilante coast guard, but to some it sounds like a fish story.

"It's nonsense," said Ken Menkhaus, Associate Professor of Political Science at Davidson College. From 1993–94, Menkhaus served as Special Political Advisor to the United Nations Operation in Somalia. "Warlords on land are putting these guys on boats and sending them out to force sea trawlers to pay a license. This is nothing more than a mafioso business."

And business is good. "Ransom demands and estimated payments have dramatically increased," said Charles Dragonette, Senior Civil Maritime Operations Analyst at the U.S. Navy Operational Intelligence Center. "Where in 2005 an attack might have brought no more that $30,000 to $60,000 per ship, current costs are approaching $1 million per ship. Somali pirates are estimated to have taken in over $17 million this year."

The September hijacking of the MV Faina, a Ukrainian ship bound for Kenya with a cargo of 33 Russian-made tanks and a cache of "weapons of all kinds," attracted the full attention of the international maritime community. NATO ships have begun patrolling the Gulf of Aden, primarily as escorts for World Food Program shipments to southern Somalia. The European Union is launching its first-ever joint naval mission to chaperone commercial vessels en route to the Suez Canal. Individual navies have dispatched gunboats to protect their own ships and citizens.

But solving the problem won't be easy. Pirates attack quickly, swarming larger boats with small, highly maneuverable skiffs. By the time a distress call is answered, most attacks are over or have turned into hostage situations.

Although high-profile hijackings grab headlines, piracy affects only a tiny percentage of international shipping. Based on known traffic flows through the Gulf of Aden, less than two-tenths of 1 percent of ships have been victimized.

"It's just not the problem it was in, say, the 17th and 18th centuries, when a huge portion of global trade was pirated," said Rediker, author of Villains of All Nations, a history of the "golden age" of Atlantic piracy. "[At that time] pirates interfered with the sugar economy, the rice and tobacco trade, even the slave trade. This was a major problem for the British and the other imperial trading nations like France and Spain. That's just not the situation now."

But downplaying the Somali pirate problem could set a dangerous precedent, according to Dragonette. "It is not conducive to international order to turn a blind eye to flagrant breaches of international law simply because there is no government ashore to be held accountable," he said.

As long as there is anarchy in Somalia, most observers agree, there will be pirates in the Gulf of Aden.

"Let's put it this way, the pirates don't have bank accounts in Dubai," said Menkhaus. "The warlords do."

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