Multinational Cooperation Tries to Take Fight to Somalia's Pirates

By Matthew Harwood

A host of nations, international organizations, and the maritime shipping industry reaffirmed their commitment to combat piracy off the Horn of Africa at a recent United Nations meeting, including a trust fund to help prosecute pirates, a U.S. State Department official told maritime security stakeholders yesterday.

Andrew J. Shapiro, assistant secretary of political-military affairs at the State Department, said in a speech at the National Defense University that the United States has aggressively used diplomacy to contain piracy off Somalia's coast by creating the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia in January.

The Contact Group last week agreed that piracy off the Horn of Africa remains a "serious shared security challenge" and assessed how roving international naval patrols has helped improve maritime security.

These patrols, according to the State Department, constitute "An unprecedented international armada of 20 Contact Group participants, including the United States, NATO, the EU, China, India, Japan, Malaysia, Russia, and Singapore are working together at sea to help safeguard regional shipping."

Yet by the numbers Shapiro cited during his speech, international cooperation hasn't stopped pirates from attacking more and more ships. In 2007, 19 ships were attacked by Somali pirates, which subsequently exploded to 122 ships attacked in 2008. Things have gotten even worse in the first 9 months of 2009 with 140 vessels attacked by pirates.

But a bright spot exists: attacks are becoming less successful. A State Department fact sheet released Sept. 1 reports that the number of successful attacks have fallen from a high of 63 percent in 2007 to 34 percent in 2008 to 24 percent in 2009. The State Department attributes this decrease to increased international cooperation and the maritime shipping industry taking better self-protection measures.

The Contact Group also established a trust fund that will help prosecute suspected pirates. "All governments, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector will be able to contribute to this trust fund, which will complement the International Maritime Organization’s International Trust Fund that is building maritime security and judicial capacity among countries near the Horn of Africa and Gulf of Aden," the State Department said.

Prosecuting pirates remains the most difficult part of the counterpiracy campaign, Shapiro said, because countries either do not have the appropriate laws to prosecute pirates or simply lack political will to do so.

The United States, however, has taken a lead in the prosecution of pirates by deciding to prosecute the pirate involved in the hijacking of the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama last April, Shapiro said. He also noted that the United States, the United Kingdom, and other countries "have arranged with Kenya to prosecute and incarcerate piracy suspects seized by our naval forces when affected states are unable or unwilling to prosecute."

Anti-piracy efforts received another boost last week, Shapiro said, when the United States, Cyprus, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and the United Kingdom signed the "New York Declaration." Signatories to the non-binding political statement agree to push their flagged commercial ships to adopt best practices "to protect against attacks, like increasing lookouts and keeping fire pumps ready to repel would-be pirates," reports Reuters. The new signatories combined with previous signatories—Panama, Liberia, Bahamas, and Marshall Island—make up "more than 50 percent of the world's shipping by gross tonnage," according to the news wire. 

The group also grew by 17 more countries, which increased the group's membership to 47 countries, 7 international organizations—including NATO, the European Union, and the African Union—and two of the largest maritime industry groups, BIMCO and INTERTANKO.

The Contact Group was created after the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1851, which allows all states to use force against pirates on land or sea after Somalia's fragile government gives permission, to spur international cooperation in the fight against piracy.

♦ Photo of United States Coast Guard during a counterpiracy training exercise in the Gulf of Aden by Coast Guard Imagery/Flickr


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