2011-08-07 Somali pirates, fish and cablegate

Authored by David Adler

This Video from 2009 sparked my interest in modern piracy. It starts off with local fishermen celebrating their ample catch in Malindi, Kenya. The abundance is attributed to Somali pirates, keeping foreign trawlers out of the area.

A transcript of the video is available here.

Local fisherman celebrate Somali pirates from Sam Farmar on Vimeo.


The footage is from Kenya – presumably mainly because journalists are more likely to report from this comparably safe country. Supposedly the effect is present in Somalia as well. Having the continent’s longest coast line of 3,330 km, some of the 9.36 Million people in this famine stricken country are most likely benefiting similarly. Wikipedia provides a Map of the area under threat of Somali pirates that gives a hint on the scale of influence. However, this positive effect might just have been of short duration. Illegal fishing reportedly continues to date, and local Somali fishermen face several piracy-related threats impeding their business.

Piracy at the Horn of Africa

Piracy off the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden became an international issue around 2005. The World Food Program (WFP) reports on hijackings of two vessels carrying relief food in March of that year, and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) started warning the Security Council about piracy in the region in November 2005.

In the following years incidents steadily became more frequent, until in 2008 the number of attacks in the region rocketed by 200%. [UNCTAD 2009, p. 134]

While no scientific research seems to exist on the cause of the increase in fish stock, it is a striking coincidence and until someone comes up with a very good argument for another reason, it seems reasonable to agree with marine biologist Steve Trott who appears in the video, naming the pirates as a cause.

Surprising is the speed of recovery. This gives some hope towards general recoverability of marine environments and at the same time leaves a devastating image of industrial fishery, managing to hold stock at dangerous low levels almost anywhere else despite this ability to recover.

There is some debate regarding the motivation driving piracy in Somalia. Some view them as a voluntary “coast guard“, set out to prevent illegal fishing and toxic/nuclear waste dumps; on the other end of the spectrum they are named “terrorists“.

Terrorist pirates?

It is easy to rule out the “terrorist” term, abused to villainise even non-violent and perfectly legal publishing activity. “Piracy” is reasonably well defined since ages and it certainly covers violent seizure of ships for a ransom (rather than for political reasons, which would be a prerequisite for “terrorism” to apply) – no need for buzzword-marketing here.

As of 2009, Somali pirates had killed 11 people, 21 were missing and 32 injured, [UNCTAD 2009, p. 134] thus they are obviously not angels fulfilling solely their humble duty as an informal coast guard. However, since state-run coastguards are often just as far from being humble angels, it is only fair to put this into perspective:

According to Oceans Beyond Piracy (OBP), casualties of attacks by Somali pirates sum up to 1.3 per 100,000 seafarers passing the region. [OBP 2011, p. 4] According to Fortress Europe, 17,738 refugees died along the European borders between 1988 and 2009, most of them by drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. Sure, there is no one literally pulling the trigger in those latter cases, but this is what happens when the inevitable refugees are driven towards more and more dangerous methods of border-crossing by an increasingly armed border control. These are accepted casualties, in many cases it is even worse: reputable German TV magazine “Report Mainz” reports in its issue from 5 October 2009 (in German – alternatively a Google translation of the transcript) that Frontex repeatedly refuses to rescue refugees in distress at sea, thereby violating international maritime law. In its 2008 statistics, Frontex counts 5969 refugees “diverted back” at sea.

Voluntary coast guard?

Given the fish stock increase mentioned in the video, to some extent the pirates obviously do achieve what a proper coast guard’s goal would be. Compare that to squalidly poor performance of the EU common fisheries policy, claiming to: [... bring] together a range of measures designed to achieve a thriving and sustainable European fishing industry.

Now here is what the reality of European fishery looks like. In that sense the pirates are doing a better job, at least this was the case in 2009.

There seem to be some good arguments towards the “coast guard”-incentive, though once big money enters the picture, the business surely attracts a heterogenious lot of venturers. Instead of discussing this topic here in more detail, I’ll refer to three other publications:
Somalia Piracy: The Two Faces - The shipping piracy & the invasion of the Somali seas an essay by Mohamed Abshir Waldo; How Somalia’s Fishermen Became Pirates, an article the Time Magazine, and Johann Hari: You are being lied to about pirates, an article in The Independent.

Efforts to combat piracy

An incomplete list of International military efforts in response to piracy follows, for more details see Wikipedia.

The European Union launched the EU NAVFOR Somalia – Operation Atalanta in 2008, a joint effort of 26 countries, with 13 EU member states contributing military “hardware”.

The Combined Task Force 150 (CTF-150) and CTF-151. The former is part of the larger Operation Enduring Freedom and also engages in anti piracy operations, the latter was started in January 2009 and specifically targets piracy off Somalia.

These operations are covered by a series of UN resolutions originating from the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), currently UNSCR 1950 from 2010.


Within the next sections, I’ll go through the US diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks to see what insight they can provide on the subject. To begin with, a cable from Canada, August 2009, dealing with opinions from the Somali population in Toronto/Ontario towards the subject. Consul General Kevin Johnson reports:

All Consulate contacts agree that the majority of the Somali-Canadian community is against Somali piracy. However, some sympathize with the acts out of concern for the poverty under which most people in Somalia live. In addition, many consider that some of the pirates are actually protecting their local fisheries from foreign ships that have exploited the Gulf of Aden in the past. There was also particular sympathy for Abduhl Wal-i-Musi, brought to New York in April 2009 to face charges connected with the taking of the Maersk Alabama, who many see as a gullible youth.

Who benefits from the “war on piracy”?

Clearly, the weapons industry benefits from 2 billion US$ spending on naval forces in counter-piracy operation. [OBP 2010, p. 25] Private security firms like Blackwater Worldwide are benefiting, as well as insurance companies. The latter increased their rates for coverage of piracy attacks more than tenfold in 2008, [UNCTAD 2009, p. 99] altogether between 460 million and 3.2 billion US$. [OBP 2010, p. 25]

Who would benefit if the “war on piracy” was to be successful?

The sailors not being under threat any more, and sea borne trade, for sure. After the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the Gulf of Aden became part of a major route for global seaborne trade, over 80% of which is trade with Europe nowadays. [UNCTAD 2009, p. 9]

In response to the threat, some shipping companies are routing their vessels around Cape of Good Hope – like in the old times of the Tea Clippers – increasing shipping costs and affecting the economy of the bypassed regions: “Re-routing via the Cape of Good Hope will likely affect the Egyptian authorities (e.g. foreign currency earnings, GDP), the Suez Canal Authority (e.g. operation earnings, unemployment). Mediterranean port authorities and terminals (e.g. reduced vessel calls and transhipments), and also industry and consumers because of additional costs.” [UNCTAD 2009, p. 9]

A number of cables confirm the obvious fact that several countries have interest in combating piracy for uninterrupted trade routes. Starting with a cable from Cairo, 2008-12-15 that mentions exactly the above Suez Canal issue: The stakes for Egypt are particularly high because piracy could affect the “credibility of the Suez Canal as a transport route.”

A few days earlier, on 2008-12-08, it says under the heading “Piracy: Ready to Contribute to United Nation’s Force”: During a general discussion on combating piracy, Ambassador [Margaret Scobey] expressed USG [United States Government] support for deepening cooperation with the international community to counter piracy in the Horn of Africa region. [...] Tantawi also shared Egypt’s willingness to contribute naval assets to combating piracy under the “United Nation’s flag.” Ambassador also applauded Egypt’s leadership on bringing together Red Sea states to coordinate counter piracy efforts.

Panama, being the by far largest shipping flag, certainly has a “natural interest” in combating piracy. A cable from March 2008: “Panama is very interested in working through the UN Security Council to combat piracy, not only in Somalia, but also throughout the world,” Panamanian DG for External Affairs Javier Bonagas told POLCOUNS [Political Counsil Brian R. Naranjo] on March 5. Bonagas noted that Panama had the world’s largest maritime fleet, with an estimated 7,000 Panamanian-flagged vessels, crossing the world’s oceans at any time. “Our vessels have been the victims of piracy off of Somalia and in the Straits of Malacca. Bonagas said that Panama had contemplated focusing on piracy during its February UNSC presidency, but decided against doing so as Panama did not want to “draw special attention to Panama or Panamanian-flagged vessels.” Post believes that Panama would be highly interested in joining a UNSC effort to combat piracy that is specific to Somalia as it provides an opportunity to enhance protection for its extensive fleet without having to draw a spotlight to itself.

In an April 2009 cable from Beijing, China, under the heading “Somali Pirates” it says: China is working to “support and take part in” the fight against pirates. China has sent vessels to the region and will follow UN resolutions and “strengthen cooperation.”

To finish this, a 2007 cable from Seoul, showing the positions of South Korea and Spain: [...] Park In-kook, Deputy Foreign Minister for International Organizations and Global Issues, agreed on the need for stronger multilateral enforcement mechanisms against piracy. In a November 6 meeting with the DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission Bill Stanton], Park asked in particular about the U.S. view of the Government of Spain’s proposal to address piracy off the east coast of Africa through an international coalition of countries whose shipping was most at risk of Somali piracy. [...]

According to an article in the Telegraph from February 2011, piracy causes a loss of over 16 billion US$ annually to world trade (no source is given). According to marisec.org: [...] the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimates that the operation of merchant ships contributes about US$380 billion in freight rates within the global economy.

Given these numbers, piracy causes an average four per cent increase in shipping cost. Since sea transport is cheap nowadays and since people benefiting from this fact are mostly the ones being comparably wealthy, I’d call this increase insignificant. Relying on global trade for essential goods like basic food and and energy supply is bad design anyway.

Notwithstanding the above number of 16 Billion (world trade only); in early 2011, OBP estimates total piracy related cost (including spending on military operation and prosecution) being seven to twelve billion US$ per year. [OBP 2010, p. 25]

Whichever numbers are more accurate, in both cases possible benefits for the local population are not considered. But how to reasonably compare rich and tasty fish meals for coastal Somali communities to military expenses of wealthy countries? No way.

It is unlikely that a “successful war on piracy” would improve the situation regarding illegal fishing and waste dumping: Allegations against foreign vessels of illegal fishing and toxic waste dumping are still being made in Somalia and continue to provide justification, in the eyes of many Somalis, for the crime of piracy. These allegations have never been adequately addressed. [OBP 2011, p. 24]

Who benefits from piracy?

Somali pirates, in a way, having collected 176 million US$ in ransom. [OBP 2010, p. 25] On the other hand they live in danger of being killed or injured. Unfortunately no reliable reporting exists on this topic. [OBP 2011, p. 11]

Given the increased fish stock, there is probably some benefit for coastal communities and the overall marine environment. For fishermen though, the situation is ambiguous, as they face threats from multiple sides:

  • From foreign trawlers or trading vessels, having attacked fishermen by simply overriding their boats or spraying them with boiling water from cannons.
  • From the foreign navies or private security guards: “Even the traditional Somali trading dhows are in panic of being mistaken for pirates.” Mohamed A. Waldo reports.
  • From the pirates themselves: Bar-kulan reports an incident where pirates steal a boat from Bargal Fishermen, leaving two people injured. Somalia Report mentions more alike cases.

Concessions and negotiations

Negotiations with pirates appear not to be a favoured option for most countries, except for acute necessity. Citing the 2007 cable from Seoul again: Park said the ROKG [Government of the Republic of Korea] was actively seeking multilateral enforcement mechanisms against piracy after recent incidents requiring direct negotiations with pirates. In an apparent reference to alleged concessions the Koreans might have made to win the return of their citizens, Park noted that the ultimate goal for Korea was a no-concessions policy, but meanwhile the ROKG was forced to take into account “national sentiment” on ensuring the safe return of Korean citizens. As the International Maritime Organization (IMO) would require a referral to the UNSC in order to implement effective action, Park did not believe the IMO was an effective mechanism by itself.

The infamous Muammar al-Gaddafi is the only one mentioned in the cables who is somewhat supportive of Somali pirates. From a Tripoli cable, 2009: [...] he has already defended Somali pirates, saying they were acting in part to protect Somalia against foreign intervention [...]

Once more, the subject of concessions or negotiations occurs: during a meeting with General William Ward, Commander of U.S. Africa Command, Gadaffi offers himself as a middleman. Tripoli, 2009-05-26:

On the topic of Somali piracy, al-Qadhafi asserted that “foreign entities” had violated Somalia’s territorial waters. The solution to the problem of Somali piracy was therefore to forge an agreement between the countries exploiting Somali waters and the pirates. Al-Qadhafi offered to identify a pirate spokesman and broker this agreement.

Al-Qadhafi emphasized that as Libya now presides over the AU [African Union], there was a possibility for cooperation with AFRICOM in combating terrorism in the Sahara and piracy. He said that he could deal with “the new America without reservation”, now that the United States was governed by “a new spirit of change.”

While there are very good reasons not to put Gaddafi in any crucial position, generally speaking, the option to negotiate and to get African institutions involved in this matter does not sound too bad. Regarding oil, Gaddafi obviously was good enough to be dealt with. Wha’ever, next section.

Handling of detainees

Rather than the issue of protecting Somalia’s coastal waters from illegal exploitation, one of the United States’ main concerns – next to securing trade routes – appears to be the issue of handling pirate detainees, a subject regularly reoccurring in the cables released so far. Probably they are eager to avoid the bad publicity received in another well known case, and in this less well known case.

Occurrences of that subject in the cables, in chronological order:

2007-11-06, Seoul: Also at the meeting, Lee Kyoo-ho, Assistant Director for Disarmament and Nonproliferation, stated that the ROK [Republic of Korea] claimed the right to protect its citizens worldwide, and would theoretically have the jurisdiction to prosecute the pirates who had taken the Golden Nori. MOFAT [Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade] had not yet considered in detail, however, how the ROKG would handle pirates involved in seizing the Golden Nori if they were captured, but Lee emphasized that the ROKG would want to coordinate with the USG in that event.

2008-12-08, Cairo: ...] Tantawi expressed confidence that the United Nations could find a solution to the question of handling the detention and prosecution of pirates captured at sea. [...]

2008-12-15, Cairo: [...] Dr. Gordon [Director of Policy Planning Dr. David Gordon] asked if Egypt would be willing to take custody of the pirates for trial. He said that it is not clear whether the U.S. would have a legal basis on which to try the pirates, unless they attacked U.S. persons, or a U.S. vessel.

2008-12-22, Panama: Mr. Kieserman [Brad Kieserman, Chief of the U.S. Coast Guard Operations Law Group and NSC Director of Maritime Threat Reduction] then noted the UN Security Council’s recent approval of Resolution 1851 and inquired if Panama would be willing to prosecute acts of piracy against Panamanian flagged vessels in the Indian Ocean [...]. He said as more naval vessels were deployed in the area, the likelihood of pirates being captured would increase. Noting the jurisdictional difficulties involved in such prosecutions, Mr. Kieserman asked that Panama show support by taking on some of these prosecutions. He explained that there would probably not be more than one or two cases a year, and that the USG would provide logistical support for such prosecutions. He also noted that SBA [Salas-Becker Agreement] could be used to authorize U.S. boarding of Panamanian flagged ships in piracy cases, as the agreement refers to maritime law enforcement, not just counter-drug operations. While noting there were serious logistical issues for Panama to prosecute such cases, including translation issues, and the availability of prosecutors and staff, Ahumada said he was sympathetic about the issue, and would push the issue within the GOP [Government of Panama] to secure agreement to prosecute a limited number of cases to support UN anti-piracy efforts.

While I am no lawyer, it seems not hard to imagine that if e.g. a crew of Philippine nationality on a vessel owned by German citizens travelling under Panama’s flag is kidnapped in international waters, that this is not an overall simple legal case. This article, a report from the 2010 African Maritime Safety and Security Conference in Stuttgart, Germany, gives some more insight.

But what about fishing?

Considering the cables released until now, the two issues being addressed with regard to piracy are those of protecting trade routes and prosecuting detainees. Neither illegal waste dumps nor illegal fishing seem to be a concern.

The subject of fishery in relation to piracy occurs only once, in the aforementioned cable from Seoul, November 2007. But – big surprise – the incentive there is not to inhibit illegal fishing around the Horn of Africa, but rather to protect Spanish fishing vessels in that area from being harassed:

Park asked in particular about the U.S. view of the Government of Spain’s proposal to address piracy off the east coast of Africa through an international coalition of countries whose shipping was most at risk of Somali piracy. Spanish fishing fleets based in the Seychelles, for example, faced harassment from pirates in that area. Spain had therefore invited the PRC [People's Republic of China], Japan, and the ROK to join existing EU coalitions against piracy, Park said. Denmark and possibly Portugal would also be interested in such an effort, Park said. While the ROK was open to this possibility, it wanted to consult first with the U.S. to hear USG views on the initiative. The ROK, Park added, would participate in any USG-supported International effort against piracy.

Officially, it is part of the EUNAVFORs mission to “[...] contribute to the monitoring of fishing activities off the coast of Somalia.” Nevertheless, Spain – one of the countries providing operational contribution – whines about its fishing fleet being disturbed. But note the diction of the sentence above: to “contribute to the monitoring of fishing activities” is not the same as to inhibit illegal fishing activities. There might be a reason they chose this abstract phrase.

Now there is one last “piracy cable” not cited yet, a report from the North Atlantic Council’s meeting in October 2008, dealing with questions of NATO support for the EU NAVFOR mission. To be fair, I won’t conceal it mentions “[...] the immediate need of providing protection to the World Food Program (WFP)[...]“, the only case I found anything somewhat altruistic in those cables.

Some thoughts

Please do not get me wrong: I am by no means supportive of pirates threatening lives of sailors, I condemn all physical harm that has been done to anyone and I agree that the crews’ lives need to be protected. It is just that, over the years, all that happens is continuously fighting symptoms with weapons. Given the giant wealth gap and the obvious ignorance towards illegal exploitation of resources in front of poor people’s eyes, a reaction such as this piracy phenomenon does not really surprise.

Piracy will not be stopped by fighting piracy, just as terrorism will not be stopped by a war on terror. As Al Jazeera Director Wadah Khanfar rightfully states in his recent Ted Talk, a change beneficial to the people will never come from the outside, even less if enforced by a multinational high-tech army.

Related blog posts

Alexandria – Crossroads of Civilization
Somalia: “pirates” or struggling fishermen?
Somali Pirates Fighting To Stop Further Destruction of Somali Seas

Further viewing

Democracy Now! – part of the issue from Tuesday, April 14, 2009

part one

part two

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