Preventive Action: The Drastic Reduction of Maritime Piracy in Somalia

Aaron Willschick looks at some of the measures being taken that have prevented a pirate attack from occurring in Somalia for over a year now and questions whether it is enough on a long-term basis.

Japanese armed guards
Armed guards are helping reduce pirate attacks

It is generally accepted that the Horn of Africa is perhaps the most troublesome area for maritime piracy in the entire world. Of all the countries in the region, pirate attacks have been most prevalent off the coast of Somalia where hundreds of attacks have occurred over the last decade. It may come as a surprise that Somali pirate attacks have seen a marked reduction over the course of the last two years. In fact, the battle against piracy has been so effective that pirates have been unable to mount a successful hijacking in an entire year now. Somali pirates hijacked 46 ships in 2009, 47 in 2010, but only 25 in 2011. Last year, there were only 75 attacks reported off Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden, down from 237 attacks in 2011 with only 14 actually being hijacked. In total, attacks are down 75 percent and while there are still periodic attempts, none have been successful since May 12, 2012 when a Greek-registered oil tanker loaded with 135, 000 tonnes of crude oil was taken control of and not released until March 10, 2013.

Why Have Hijackings Disappeared?

The absence of any pirate hijackings off the coast of Somalia is certainly a noteworthy achievement for defence forces and a lot of the solution has had to do with the combined efforts of international naval forces and improved security on ships. The increasing use of armed guards on ships seems to be having a positive effect, but there are also other important factors that cannot be overlooked. Much of the fight against piracy has centered on prosecuting pirates and handing down harsh punishments to perpetrators. Approximately 1, 140 Somali pirates in 21 countries have been prosecuted and jailed which some feel has acted as a large deterrent. Many of those that have been jailed have been transferred to Somali prisons where conditions are grim and which appears to be having a preventive effect. Ships from NATO, the European Union, China, Russia and many other countries have successfully combined efforts to disrupt and discourage Somali pirates from carrying out attacks. With so many powerful naval forces at play, it has left pirates with very little room to hide.

Is This Enough?

While the current tactics of naval forces are having a positive effect against piracy, are these efforts enough to combat the problem on a long-term basis? This is a difficult question to answer and there is a greater issue at hand. Many observers and policymakers agree that to truly combat maritime piracy in the Horn of Africa, we must get at the root causes of it. According to a recent World Bank study, the international community must focus on helping the troubled nation build a functional political system. It concludes that piracy is a symptom of the breakdown of Somalia’s political system where a history of inter- and intra-clan competition and European colonization has left many areas without functioning institutions. This has allowed pirates to recruit local youth, purchase guns and speedboats and most importantly, secure coastal areas where they can anchor hijacked vessels for months or even years.

The international community has mostly focused on fighting piracy through offshore measures, such as increasing naval pressure and onboard security. Despite their success, these are costly measures that would require expanding and being made permanent which the World Bank study sees as unsustainable in the long run. It suggests a paradigm shift away from perpetrators towards the enablers of piracy. With a limited number of suitable coastal areas available to anchor hijacked ships, piracy would be less profitable if Somalia removed access to safe anchorage points or significantly raised the price for coastal access. Additionally, the government can offer incentives to encourage local stakeholders to stop pirate activity. The study concludes that state building is at the core of discouraging piracy from ever taking shape.

Naval forces should be commended for their efforts in preventing a pirate attack from taking place over the last year, but continued and collective effort is a necessity. The World Bank study may be correct in its assessment that we should tackle the root causes of piracy, but this is a long-term societal problem that will require years of action and patience. There is no simple cure for Somali piracy without a drastic improvement of living conditions and the Somalian political system. At the very least, it is reassuring to know that significant action is finally being taken and there is hope that the worst days of Somali piracy may be behind us.

About Aaron Willschick

Aaron Willschick is a graduate from the MA program in European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. He also holds an MA degree in political science from York University and a BaH from York University’s Glendon College. His research interests include the European Union, European security and defense policy, NATO enlargement to Eastern Europe and democratization. He has extensive experience in policy and research, having worked as a trade assistant at the U.S. Consulate in Toronto and a research assistant to well-known Canadian author Anna Porter and York University political science professor Heather MacRae. Contact Information: Email: awillschick@rogers.com