WASHINGTON, D.C. — Somali piracy is declining as more commercial vessels employ armed guards, foreign navies ramp-up security and courts dish out justice to offenders, but “progress is still fragile and reversible,” a U.S. State Department official warned yesterday.
Advances in piracy prevention could easily be lost if vessels stop hiring armed guards, countries lessen their deployment of navies to police the region and the web of policing partnerships unravels, said Donna Hopkins, coordinator of counter piracy and maritime security at the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs. It’s been more a year since Somali pirates were able to hijack a commercial vessel, with the last successful attempt being on May 12, 2012, when a crude oil tanker was captured.
Global piracy hit a five-year low in 2012, as the number of ships attacked fell to 297 ships from 439 in 2011, according to the International Chamber of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau. The number of Somali pirate attacks fell from 237 in 2011 to 75 last year, while the number of hijackings in the region shrank from 28 to 14 in the same period. Hopkins said increased deployment of armed guards on commercial vessels has been key to fending off hijacking but admitted the approach was less than ideal.
The costs of employing armed guards still pale in comparison with what the cost of piracy could be without security firms onboard. Global piracy cost the international economy between $5.7 billion and $6.1 billion last year, a 12.6 percent reduction from the previous year, according to Oceans Beyond Piracy, a privately funded and independent nonprofit.
“It’s expensive. It’s difficult. It’s fraught not only with additional expenses to industry but real practical difficulties, and we in the diplomatic world understand that,” she said at a North American Marine Environment Protection Association seminar.
Thanks to increased policing by the European Union, North Atlantic Treaty Organization and other non-member navies, commercial vessels plying the waters are safer. National courts’ willingness and ability to prosecute pirates have also been key in making the activity less attractive to Somali men.
That roughly 1,140 Somali pirates are in prison speaks to how the international community has been able to overcome the difficulties of prosecuting violators. Many countries, for example, don’t have rules in place or resources needed to try accused pirates, Hopkins said. The European Union earlier this month allocated $47.7 million toward a new program aimed at developing legal and judicial system in Eastern and Southern African countries, so they can better arrest and transfer pirates to courts.
Intelligence reports suggest that the potential Somali pirate recruitment pool numbers about 10,000, with about 3,000 of them likely to be recruited, Hopkins said. Now, a number equal to about a third of the likely recruited population is already in prisons in Germany, the U.S., Kenya, Somalia and other countries, she said.
“This phenomenon has not gone unnoticed in Somali communities,” she said. “Their young men are disappearing from communities, and Somali civil society has taken note that their husbands, their fathers, their sons are going to sea and not coming back.”
Many of them are dying during attempted hijackings. Some 30 to 50 percent of pirates utilizing a small skiff to take on a large commercial vessel don’t return to shore.
Hopkins added that the international community is also “putting a big dent in the investors and conspirators” that fund piracy. The progress is still tenuous, though. The Somali government is showing positive signs in its attempt to restore order to the civil war-wracked country, but its control is still limited to around the capital, Mogadishu.
Hopkins reminded seminar attendees that Somali pirates still hold 54 hostages from the hijacking of two merchant ships. She emphasized the importance of the Hostage Relief Program, a United Nations initiative that helps freed hostages return to their homes, as captives are freed without money and proper documentation.
Even as Somali piracy declines, attacks are ramping up in West Africa, particularly in Nigeria, said Kevin Doherty, president of Nexus Consulting Group, a Virginia-based consulting firm. There were 58 attacks in the Gulf of Guinea last year, resulting in 10 hijackings and the taking of 207 hostages, according to the IMB.
Unlike their Somali counterparts, Nigerian pirates are more interested in stealing the goods and materials being transported than ransoming captured crew members. Nigerian pirates are also better armed than Somali pirates and have a higher level of proficiency with higher-caliber weapons, Doherty said.
Protecting vessels around Nigeria is further complicated because carriers can’t have armed personnel in the country’s territorial waters, which extend 200 nautical miles from shore. Whereas “Somali piracy started as a mom-and-pop operation,” piracy off the Nigerian focus is largely focused on illegal oil bunkering and results from deep-seated corruption in the country, Hopkins said.
Despite successful effort to fight piracy, Doherty said the business model is still profitable, as evidenced by Somali pirates employing a spokesman and buying property in Kenya.
“When we talk about piracy, what we forget about is we are talking about adjectives,” he said. “We solved the Barbary pirates. We solved the Libyan pirates, and we may have solved the Somali pirates. But we haven’t solved piracy.”