Does a military solution for Somali piracy work?
Somali pirate attacks have dropped, from 45 in 2010 to 24 in 2011, but there's no evidence that more naval patrols and aggressive private security firms are actually keeping pirates ashore.
To some, the solution to Somali piracy is blindingly obvious. Patrol the seas. Capture the pirates. Send them to the briny deep. If it worked on the Barbary Coast, it should work in Somalia.Skip to next paragraph
Good reads: Freedom of speech, YouTube cats, and campaign strategy
Good Reads: Hillsborough, rural Russians, and chasing dreams of spaceflight
Good Reads: Israel's Iran debate, Scalia's 'originalism,' and blasphemy in Pakistan
Good Reads: Volcanoes, guillotines, and the key to happiness
The real danger for South Africa after Lonmin mine shooting
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
But with Somali pirates going further out to sea, such a solution is more difficult than it sounds. Patrolling the narrow waters of the Gulf of Aden – as the European Naval Force and some other countries such as China, India, Japan, Russia, and Taiwan are doing – is relatively simple. Patrolling the much broader Indian Ocean, where Somali pirates have moved, is more difficult.
And for those pirate crews who do get captured, there’s one more consideration. Where do you take them for trial? Very few nations – none of them, interestingly, in the countries providing naval patrols off the Somali coast – have taken Somali pirates to put them on trial. Most pirates who do get captured are simply disarmed, dragged in their skiffs closer to Somali shores, and released.
IN PICTURES: Somali pirates
As a Guardian headline this week sums it up, “Outgunned Somali pirates can hardly believe their luck.”
Not all of the navies patrolling for pirates use gentle methods, of course. In November 2008, the Indian Navy sank a pirate ship in the Gulf of Aden. Russian Navy sailors apparently captured a Somali pirate ship earlier this year, and blew it up afterward. The video of this action went viral, alleging that the Russian sailors blew up the ship with the pirates on board, but there is no proof of that. (Advisory note: the video contains violence and may be difficult for sensitive viewers to watch). And on March 25, 2011, private security guards aboard a commercial freighter called the Avocet opened fire on an apparent Somali pirate crew aboard a skiff. The pirates never made it aboard the ship, but the video stirred controversy about the use of force in commercial shipping.
Does militarizing the seas actually deter piracy? The data don’t provide easy answers.
Since 2008, Somali pirate gangs have launched more than 800 attacks on commercial ships, with 170 ships hijacked, and 3,400 sailors held for ransom. Shipping firms have paid more than $530 million on private security firms during that time period, and $160 million was paid out to pirate gangs last year alone.
That, clearly, is the reason Somali gangs get into the pirate business. Do a few well-armed security guards onboard commercial ships, or a few naval patrol ships deter those pirates from taking to the high seas? Some point to the dropping number of pirate attacks – from 45 attacks in 2010 to 24 in 2011 – as a sign that naval patrolling and private security may be working.