Summary: A follow-up to What is this “justice” that war-loving Americans speak of? about the Somalia pirates. As so often the case on the FM website, the comments were disturbing — examples of the widespread modern America our love of force and disdain for justice (for others, that is). We can do better. Understanding ourselves is the first step. At the end are links to other posts in this series about pirates.
This post gives a brief look at the origins of Somalia piracy. These following links were contributed by Rune in this comment. Thanks! Excerpts appear below.
- “How Somalia’s Fishermen Became Pirates“, Time, 18 April 2009
- “You are being lied to about pirates“, Johann Hari, op-ed in The Independent, 5 January 2009 — “Some are clearly just gangsters. But others are trying to stop illegal dumping and trawling”
- “Somali Pirates Tell Their Side: They Want Only Money“, New York Times, 1 October 2008 — A telephone interview with the pirates’ spokesman, Sugule Ali.
Our inaction — not even any serious diplomacy to protect Somalia — betrays the efforts of the WWII generation who built the current world regime and established America as the global hegemon. The consequences — Somalian piracy, growing contempt for western ideas, and destruction of the world’s fisheries — are perhaps a just result. Also — the future lies ahead, in which today’s developing nations leverage their population and resources into world dominance. Our actions will be remembered. What goes around comes around.
A note for any children reading this
The origins of this criminal behavior (i.e, piracy) shows gaps in the global political regime, a shortfall from not just its ideals but practical requirements. This shows the need for change, to make a better future for the world.
This does not mean that piracy should be tolerated, any more than any criminal behavior is excused by its origins (except for a small number of exceptions, such as self-defense). However, the origin of the problem suggests elements of the solution — such as, perhaps, mitigating the damage done to Somalia. Best paid for by the nations who committed these crimes. That would be bold effective action, but not as easy or fun as bombing Somalia’s villages.
(1) “How Somalia’s Fishermen Became Pirates“, Time, 18 April 2009 — Excerpt:
Amid the current media frenzy about Somali pirates, it’s hard not to imagine them as characters in some dystopian Horn of Africa version of Waterworld. We see wily corsairs in ragged clothing swarming out of their elusive mother ships, chewing narcotic khat while thumbing GPS phones and grappling hooks. They are not desperate bandits, experts say, rather savvy opportunists in the most lawless corner of the planet. But the pirates have never been the only ones exploiting the vulnerabilities of this troubled failed state — and are, in part, a product of the rest of the world’s neglect. (Read “No Surrender to Thugs.”)
Ever since a civil war brought down Somalia’s last functional government in 1991, the country’s 3,330 km (2,000 miles) of coastline — the longest in continental Africa — has been pillaged by foreign vessels. A United Nations report in 2006 said that, in the absence of the country’s at one time serviceable coastguard, Somali waters have become the site of an international “free for all,” with fishing fleets from around the world illegally plundering Somali stocks and freezing out the country’s own rudimentarily-equipped fishermen. According to another U.N. report, an estimated $300 million worth of seafood is stolen from the country’s coastline each year. “In any context,” says Gustavo Carvalho, a London-based researcher with Global Witness, an environmental NGO, “that is a staggering sum.”
In the face of this, impoverished Somalis living by the sea have been forced over the years to defend their own fishing expeditions out of ports such as Eyl, Kismayo and Harardhere — all now considered to be pirate dens. Somali fishermen, whose industry was always small-scale, lacked the advanced boats and technologies of their interloping competitors, and also complained of being shot at by foreign fishermen with water cannons and firearms. “The first pirate gangs emerged in the ’90s to protect against foreign trawlers,” says Peter Lehr, lecturer in terrorism studies at Scotland’s University of St. Andrews and editor of Violence at Sea: Piracy in the Age of Global Terrorism. The names of existing pirate fleets, such as the National Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia or Somali Marines, are testament to the pirates’ initial motivations.
The waters they sought to protect, says Lehr, were “an El Dorado for fishing fleets of many nations.” A 2006 study published in the journal Science predicted that the current rate of commercial fishing would virtually empty the world’s oceanic stocks by 2050.
… High-seas trawlers from countries as far flung as South Korea, Japan and Spain have operated down the Somali coast, often illegally and without licenses, for the better part of two decades, the U.N. says. They often fly flags of convenience from sea-faring friendly nations like Belize and Bahrain, which further helps the ships skirt international regulations and evade censure from their home countries. Tsuma Charo of the Nairobi-based East African Seafarers Assistance Programme, which monitors Somali pirate attacks and liaises with the hostage takers and the captured crews, says “illegal trawling has fed the piracy problem.”
Beyond illegal fishing, foreign ships have also long been accused by local fishermen of dumping toxic and nuclear waste off Somalia’s shores. A 2005 United Nations Environmental Program report cited uranium radioactive and other hazardous deposits leading to a rash of respiratory ailments and skin diseases breaking out in villages along the Somali coast. According to the U.N., at the time of the report, it cost $2.50 per ton for a European company to dump these types of materials off the Horn of Africa, as opposed to $250 per ton to dispose of them cleanly in Europe.
(2) “You are being lied to about pirates“, Johann Hari, op-ed in The Independent, 5 January 2009 — “Some are clearly just gangsters. But others are trying to stop illegal dumping and trawling” — Excerpt:
In 1991, the government of Somalia collapsed. Its nine million people have been teetering on starvation ever since – and the ugliest forces in the Western world have seen this as a great opportunity to steal the country’s food supply and dump our nuclear waste in their seas.
Yes: nuclear waste. As soon as the government was gone, mysterious European ships started appearing off the coast of Somalia, dumping vast barrels into the ocean. The coastal population began to sicken. At first they suffered strange rashes, nausea and malformed babies. Then, after the 2005 tsunami, hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than 300 died.
Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN envoy to Somalia, tells me: “Somebody is dumping nuclear material here. There is also lead, and heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury – you name it.” Much of it can be traced back to European hospitals and factories, who seem to be passing it on to the Italian mafia to “dispose” of cheaply. When I asked Mr Ould-Abdallah what European governments were doing about it, he said with a sigh: “Nothing. There has been no clean-up, no compensation, and no prevention.”
At the same time, other European ships have been looting Somalia’s seas of their greatest resource: seafood. We have destroyed our own fish stocks by overexploitation – and now we have moved on to theirs. More than $300m-worth of tuna, shrimp, and lobster are being stolen every year by illegal trawlers. The local fishermen are now starving. Mohammed Hussein, a fisherman in the town of Marka 100km south of Mogadishu, told Reuters: “If nothing is done, there soon won’t be much fish left in our coastal waters.”
This is the context in which the “pirates” have emerged. Somalian fishermen took speedboats to try to dissuade the dumpers and trawlers, or at least levy a “tax” on them. They call themselves the Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia – and ordinary Somalis agree. The independent Somalian news site WardheerNews found 70% “strongly supported the piracy as a form of national defence”.
No, this doesn’t make hostage-taking justifiable, and yes, some are clearly just gangsters – especially those who have held up World Food Programme supplies. But in a telephone interview, one of the pirate leaders, Sugule Ali: “We don’t consider ourselves sea bandits. We consider sea bandits [to be] those who illegally fish and dump in our seas.” William Scott would understand.
Did we expect starving Somalians to stand passively on their beaches, paddling in our toxic waste, and watch us snatch their fish to eat in restaurants in London and Paris and Rome? We won’t act on those crimes – the only sane solution to this problem – but when some of the fishermen responded by disrupting the transit-corridor for 20% of the world’s oil supply, we swiftly send in the gunboats.
The story of the 2009 war on piracy was best summarised by another pirate, who lived and died in the fourth century BC. He was captured and brought to Alexander the Great, who demanded to know “what he meant by keeping possession of the sea.” The pirate smiled, and responded: “What you mean by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you, who do it with a great fleet, are called emperor.” Once again, our great imperial fleets sail – but who is the robber?
(3) “Somali Pirates Tell Their Side: They Want Only Money“, New York Times, 1 October 2008 — A telephone interview with the pirates’ spokesman, Sugule Ali. Excerpt:
In a 45-minute interview, Mr. Sugule spoke on everything from what the pirates wanted (“just money”) to why they were doing this (“to stop illegal fishing and dumping in our waters”) to what they had to eat on board (rice, meat, bread, spaghetti, “you know, normal human-being food”). He said that so far, in the eyes of the world, the pirates had been misunderstood. “We don’t consider ourselves sea bandits,” he said. “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.”
… The piracy industry started about 10 to 15 years ago, Somali officials said, as a response to illegal fishing. Somalia’s central government imploded in 1991, casting the country into chaos. With no patrols along the shoreline, Somalia’s tuna-rich waters were soon plundered by commercial fishing fleets from around the world. Somali fishermen armed themselves and turned into vigilantes by confronting illegal fishing boats and demanding that they pay a tax.
“From there, they got greedy,” said Mohamed Osman Aden, a Somali diplomat in Kenya. “They starting attacking everyone.”
By the early 2000s, many of the fishermen had traded in their nets for machine guns and were hijacking any vessel they could catch: sailboat, oil tanker, United Nations-chartered food ship.
“It’s true that the pirates started to defend the fishing business,” Mr. Mohamed said. “And illegal fishing is a real problem for us. But this does not justify these boys to now act like guardians. They are criminals. The world must help us crack down on them.”
For more information from the FM site
Reference pages about other topics appear on the right side menu bar, including the Naval warfare and strategy reference page.
Posts on the FM site about pirates:
- All about Pirates!, 12 December 2008
- More about pirates: why we no longer “hang them high”, 5 January 2009
- A Piracy SitRep, 12 May 2009
- What is this “justice” that war-loving Americans speak of?, 31 December 2009
- More about those pirate demons in Somalia, 2 January 2009
- The real pirates sailing the seas, in whom we have no interest and from which we will suffer massive damage, 4 January 2010
- New research about pirates!, 3 March 2010
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