Will US intervention against pirates deepen Somalia's crisis?
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced a new US initiative April 15 to battle piracy off Somalia, and said she has formed a diplomatic team to press Somali leaders "to take action against pirates operating from bases within their territories." She added: "These pirates are criminals. They are armed gangs on the sea. And those plotting attacks must be stopped."
Somalia's Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke (whose "government" actually controls very little of Somalia) told the Associated Press that his piracy-fighting plan will be ready next week in time for an international conference on Somalia in Brussels. In Nairobi, Sharmarke and the president of Somalia's autonomous Puntland region met with US diplomats including the ambassador to Kenya. "We want to press them to take action against these pirates who are operating from their territory," said State Department spokesman Robert Wood. He said the United States was willing to help but has not decided how best to do so. (AP, AllAfrica.com, April 16)
An April 17 New York Times editorial, "Fighting Piracy in Somalia," applauds the US Navy for the rescue of Richard Phillips, but warns:
The cruel fact is that even as Americans celebrated the rescue, the Somali pirates — in what is business as usual off of Somalia's long ungoverned coast— were grabbing more ships. There are now 17 captured ships and about 260 hostages waiting to be ransomed. The short-term answer is more patrols and better cooperation with regional states; a long-term solution, alas, remains elusive.
The U.S. and French governments were fully within their rights to authorize deadly force against the heavily armed pirates. Though the bandits may only be looking for ransom, their trophies have included giant oil tankers and ships full of sophisticated weapons. They have seriously disrupted shipping in one of the busiest maritime passages in the world, and their tactics could easily be adopted by terrorist groups — including Islamist groups inside Somalia linked to Al Qaeda — looking to cripple global commerce.
Of course, this is an acknowledgement that the pirates aren't Islamists. In fact, the Islamists have threatened to attack the pirate bases in Puntland (after the pirates were so indiscreet as to seize a Saudi ship—given that the Saudis are likely underwriting the Islamists). The Times squawks the standard media line:
Somalia has known only varying degrees of anarchy for 18 years now. A whole generation of Somalis has been raised in a violent free-for-all of warlords, pirates and extremists. Misguided American attempts to impose order produced the "Black Hawk Down" fiasco in 1993 and an ultimately useless Ehtiopian invasion in 2006.
Yet left to its own devices, Somalia can only become more noxious, spreading violence to its East African neighbors, breeding more extremism and making shipping through the Gulf of Aden ever more dangerous and costly. Various approaches are being discussed, such as working through Somalia’s powerful clans to reconstitute first local and then regional and national institutions. These must be urgently explored. One thing is clear: the United States cannot go it alone. This is a problem that can only be solved in partnership with Western allies and East African governments.
Again, no acknowledgement that "Somalia" actually consists of (at least) three distinct entities: the autonomous regions of Puntland and Somaliland (which govern themselves fairly well) and the oxymoron of "government-controlled Somalia"—which is only one-third of what maps label "Somalia," and isn't controlled by the government. The Great Powers insist on viewing the problem in Somalia as a power vacuum which can be solved by Great Power intervention (whether unilateral, as Bush attempted through his Ethiopian proxies, or multilateral, as the Times would prefer). Instead, it is that part of Somalia (the southern third, and the former Italian colony) which has been a war zone for nearly a generation now, thanks to Great Power efforts to impose governments. The northern two thirds of the country (Puntland and Somaliland, the former British colony), have achieved their own autonomy in spite of the Great Powers, and have relative peace. Going after the pirate bases in Puntland may provide the pretext for putting an end to its hard-won autonomy.
Meanwhile, leave it to the kneejerk Idiot Left to rally uncritically around the pirates. London Independent columnist John Hari, writing April 13 on Huffington Post, has a much-quoted article entitled "You Are Being Lied to About Pirates":
In 1991, the government of Somalia - in the Horn of Africa - collapsed. Its nine million people have been teetering on starvation ever since - and many of 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.
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 over exploitation - and now we have moved on to theirs. More than $300m worth of tuna, shrimp, lobster and other sea life is being stolen every year by vast trawlers illegally sailing into Somalia's unprotected seas. The local fishermen have suddenly lost their livelihoods, and they are starving.
This is the context in which the men we are calling "pirates" have emerged. Everyone agrees they were ordinary Somalian fishermen who at first took speedboats to try to dissuade the dumpers and trawlers, or at least wage a 'tax' on them. They call themselves the Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia - and it's not hard to see why. In a surreal telephone interview, one of the pirate leaders, Sugule Ali, said their motive was "to stop illegal fishing and dumping in our waters... We don't consider ourselves sea bandits. We consider sea bandits [to be] those who illegally fish and dump in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas."
We've noted the claims about toxic waste here—and they are entirely plausible. But before we swallow this "Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia" jazz, we'd like to see some evidence that the voluminous ransom monies have been democratically distributed to impacted coastal communities, or used for ecological remediation. Predictably, Hari is just as blind as the New York Times to the fact that Somalia is not just a lawless zone where a self-styled "Volunteer Coastguard" is needed to come to the rescue. Puntland, from where the pirates operate, has its own rudimentary coast guard, and it has (under foreign pressure) been deployed against the pirates.
Nyankor Matthew, in an April 15 piece for the Liberian Dialogue, "Somali Pirates: International Hypocrisy and Pretext for Military Invasion and Economic Imperialism," sees illegal fishing in Somali waters as a provocation to the crisis:
After years of plundering their resources, the Somali fishermen finally decided to fight off the real pirates, thieves, and terrorists, and instead of being called voluntary coast guards, they are being labeled as criminals, pirates, and terrorists... In my humble opinion they are totally justified in their actions because they are doing nothing different than what is being done to them by the same people calling them pirates. The only difference is that unlike the propagandists, the Somalis don't have a voice.
She quotes a report form the NGO ECOTERRA International:
ECOTERRA International warned ship-owners as far back as 1992, that they were fishing illegally within the Somalia's Exclusive Economic Zone. When foreign vessels refused to stop pirating Somalia's ocean resources, EcoTerra repeatedly appealed to the US and the international community for help to protect the coastal waters of the war-torn state to no avail. This void provided an opening for the rise of Somalia's pirate fleets.
Illegal fishing is a serious problem, but we'd like to know how seizing ships loaded with humanitarian aid is addressing the problem. And, alas, even Matthew, with her pan-Africanist perspective, offers no acknowledgement that two-thirds of Somalia is already running its own affairs reasonably well. International recognition of Puntland's autonomy and Somaliland's declared independence—building on the stability that already exists, instead of tearing it down—could provide a way out of the crisis. But hardly anyone is talking about that.
See our last post on Somalia and the pirates.