For some time now, the argument that the pirates terrorising the waters off the coast of Somalia are a combination of environmentalists and Robin Hoods has been popping up (although it has not received the same amount of attention as the gripping stories of how the pirates held captain Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama hostage before eventually being killed by US forces). This week, the EU Observer reports how one overlooked issue in the recent press coverage is the question of what has led to the dramatic rise in hijacking and kidnapping incidents off the Somali coast. It is reported that a combination of overfishing by European vessels in Somali waters (allegedly Spanish and/or Greek vessels flying so-called flags of convenience of Panama or Cambodia), dumping of toxic materials in Somali waters (such as “industrial, medical and even radioactive waste”) and general lack of governance in Somalia is behind the rise in piracy.
While the article is certainly right in pointing out that one major contributing factor to the abysmal piracy situation, and state of affairs in Somalia in general, is that Somalia pretty much constitutes a failed state with no central governing authority able to assert any control. However, it is probably more doubtful whether overfishing and dumping of waste, immoral as these acts may be, is to blame for the sharp increase in incidents of piracy. For instance, very few EU fishing vessels have been spotted in Somali territory since 2006 – ironically because it became too dangerous for vessels to enter Somali waters. Likewise, the dumping of waste would also seemed to have declined since it reached a peak in the mid to late 1990s – UNEP is reported to have found no traces of toxic samples after carrying out an assessment in 2005.
Instead it seems that these factors may initially have led local fishermen to intercept ships and, in some instances, require taxes from passing ships. But what has spurred the dramatic rise in recent violent kidnappings and hijackings seems to be the fact that, at least so far, total impunity has existed for pirates – notwithstanding the charges that the captured pirate from the Maersk Alabama incident faces in US Courts. It thus appears that, as noted in the article, although this is likely to receive little attention in the ongoing attempts to address piracy, two types of pirates exists; “the original fishermen who have been displaced by the illegal fishing” and mere criminals taking advantage of the situation. What this highlights instead is the need for a more holistic approach to address the problem of piracy and that an approach focusing on military intervention and protection alone is unlikely to have much long-term effect. However, it is unlikely that the international community can (or will, after all, foreign countries really only got involved once important commercial and shipping interests were at stake) do much to tackle any root causes in light of failed attempts in the mid 1990s to change the situation on the ground in Somalia. It would seem that very few states have any interest in getting involved on the ground in Somalia although it is arguably what is needed in order to fully address the current mess.