Piracy was highlighted as a key issue in the communiqué released following the 2012 London Conference on Somalia. The document affirmed the international community’s understanding that piracy cannot be solved purely by military efforts; acknowledging instead that a solution would require 'a comprehensive approach on land as well as at sea'. Participants from over 50 countries and international organisations confirmed their commitment to support Somalia’s coastal communities in tackling the underlying causes of piracy.
Recent figures from the International Maritime Bureau show that over the past year pirate activity emanating from Somalia’s coastline has fallen dramatically. There has not only been a reduction in successful hijackings, but also in the number of attempts that pirates are making, demonstrating that piracy has become a less attractive means of revenue generation for many young Somalis. In 2011 there were 199 incidents, but by the end of 2012 this figure had dropped by almost two thirds, to 70. The last recorded hijacking of a vessel in the high risk area of the Indian Ocean was in May 2012. The reasons behind this drop are three-fold.
International naval patrols began following Somali piracy's re-emergence in 2008, and have been key in apprehending and disrupting pirates operating from Somalia’s coast. EUNAVFOR's Operation Atalanta, NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield and the US-led Combined Task Force 151 have been at the forefront of increased collaboration between international navies, and the establishment of an Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (ITRC) – a passage within the Gulf of Aden which is patrolled by naval vessels – has allowed commercial ships to continue traversing the busy shipping route running through the Gulf of Aden.
The majority of commercial ship owners with vessels passing through the Indian Ocean have implemented Best Management Practices, which are guidelines detailing methods to protect a vessel from attack. These recommendations include faster travel through the high risk area of the Indian Ocean, increased vigilance, and ship protection measures such as the installation of barbed wire and citadels.
An increasing acceptance of the presence of private armed guards aboard vessels has been one of the most controversial counter-piracy methods introduced in the Indian Ocean. But it seems to have been an effective deterrent and, despite concerns about the risk to innocent fishermen and other seafarers who may be mistaken for pirates, some governments, including the US and UK administrations, have been reassured by the oft-repeated phrase that no ship with private armed guards on board has been successfully hijacked.
It is the efforts being made at sea – by international navies and the shipping industry – which have thus far had the biggest success in curtailing pirate activity emanating from Somalia. These gains should be celebrated, but their limited nature must also be acknowledged. The chance of earning up to $6,000 for a few weeks' work as a pirate in a country where the average annual income is $600 will continue to be attractive to some until significant change occurs within Somalia. The availability of realistic employment opportunities to provide alternative livelihoods for many in Somalia’s coastal communities requires increased security on-land, to win the trust of investors in new business and at sea, to allow Somalia’s domestic fishing industry to flourish again.
An understanding of the need to introduce on-land initiatives in order to more permanently curb piracy is generally accepted by international governments, and the international community is gradually delivering on the comprehensive approach which was promised after 2012's Conference.
Recent efforts, such as a new maritime strategy for Somalia drafted in March by Somali leaders and representatives from the UN and African Union, and the promise of $2 million from a UN trust fund for counter-piracy projects, could make a significant difference. However, Somalia’s maritime security is not simply about piracy. In a recent speech to the UN, the President of Somalia, Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud, warned that ongoing illegal activity in Somalia’s waters allegedly carried out by international actors – including the dumping of toxic waste and illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing by foreign trawlers – would no longer be tolerated.
If, as the President argues, the international community is to accept its 'legal and moral responsibility' to curb illegal maritime activity not carried out by Somalis, a truly international effort with a holistic approach is the only way to secure Somalia’s waters and the wider Indian Ocean.
Expectations ran high ahead of 2012's London Somalia Conference and some commentators, particularly from the Somali diaspora, expressed disappointment afterwards that the meeting had focused too heavily on issues of piracy and terrorism, and not on factors such as chronic unemployment and food insecurity. The UK government has been keen to emphasize that the May 2013 Conference on Somalia is truly a combined effort, with Somalia’s government taking the lead in setting the agenda.
The plan to discuss a Somali-defined maritime strategy at this year’s conference shows a potential shift in international discourse about the Indian Ocean from an automatic association of Somalia with piracy towards an understanding of the need to support efforts to better protect and develop the country’s maritime space in a way that could benefit the entire region.
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