Piracy is down, can we all go home?


With the number of pirate attacks on maritime shipping off the coast of Somalia down over the past year, there are increasing calls to declare that the threat from piracy is over.

Last month the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) said that the number of ships reporting attacks by Somali pirates fell this year to its lowest level since 2009. Worldwide, pirates have killed at least six crew and taken 448 seafarers hostage this year. The IMB reports that 125 vessels were boarded, 24 hijacked and 26 fired upon while there were 58 attempted attacks.

The drop in Somali piracy brings down the figures for piracy and armed robbery at sea to 233 incidents for 2012, which is the lowest third quarter total since 2008, the IMB said. “In the first nine months of 2012, there were 70 Somali attacks compared with 199 for the corresponding period in 2011. And from July to September, just one ship reported an attempted attack by Somali pirates, compared with 36 incidents in the same three months last year.”
“Does this mean that Somali piracy is at an end?” asked Captain (Retired) Philip Holihead, Head of the Djibouti Code of Conduct, Implementation Unit, at the International Maritime Organisation (IMO).

Holihead noted that governments and ship owners, who are spending millions to provide security, will hope that it is. Conversely, there are others, such as security and insurance companies, who are less keen to see piracy at an end.
“Then there will be those who are torn, because piracy is a source of their livelihood,” Holihead noted in a speech read out on his behalf at the Maritime and Coastal Security Africa 2012 conference currently under way in Cape Town.

He noted that it applies as much to himself “as it does to those senior naval officers, who are creating new roles for their naval forces, which are facing cuts and dilution as inter-state wars become a thing of the past.”

Holihead stated that naval forces had gained the upper hand for the first time since 2008. He remarked that this success can only be sustained if current anti-piracy efforts were to remain in place. This was because little else has changed in the background to prevent the attacks from happening again.
“So what else is needed to change,” Holihead asks, “before we can start really thinking about a sustained success in the fight to counter piracy off Somalia?”

Most Somalis will say that the root causes of piracy were illegal fishing and the dumping of toxic waste in Somalia’s waters, which decimated the fishing industry and caused fishermen to turn to crime. This is compounded by thirty years of war and no functioning government, Holihead said.

Holihead noted that the new President and government in Somalia offers a real opportunity to take establish national stability and security. Somalia will also need to update its legislation to create and empower maritime law enforcement.

Holihead said that despite the drop in the number of successful pirate attacks, the international community is still far from being in a position to be certain that the pirates will not return in force. Holihead concluded that piracy will only cease following the stabilisation of Somalia and the building of regional naval capacity. “I think we might be entering the end of the beginning: there is much to be done.”

Supporting Holihead, Rear Admiral Bernhard Teuteberg, Director of Maritime Strategy, South African Navy, stated that it was only because of the pressure brought by the international community that the number of pirate attacks has been reduced. Take away that pressure, he said, and the pirate attacks will once again increase.

Rear Admiral Duncan Potts, operation commander of the European Union’s counter piracy mission (EU Navfor) off the coast of Somalia earlier this week warned that whilst pirate attacks have reduced off the Horn of Africa over the past year, the threat of piracy remains and owners should continue to avoid transiting the High Risk Area – the southern Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and the Western part of the Indian Ocean.
“We are currently witnessing a tactical, yet wholly reversible success in the reduction of pirate attacks off the Horn of Africa and we very much welcome the shipping community’s efforts to protect merchant ships transiting the area with the implementation of self-protection measures to deter attacks. Counter-piracy forces also continue to maintain pressure on Somali pirates by disrupting their activities at sea. That said, it cannot be stressed enough the significant danger that pleasure craft owners will put themselves in if they choose to transit the high risk sea area where pirates are known to operate.”

About 12 yachts have been attacked, with their crews captured or killed by pirates in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean in the past few years. Nearly every recorded attack on a yacht has led to the crew being taken hostage and moved to Somalia, with extreme violence and mock executions being the norm. On average, maritime hostages have been held for over 7 months, however, some are held for much longer, with huge ransoms being demanded for release, the EU Navfor said.