Instead of chests of gold, modern pirates go for tanks and oil.
Chris Pederen/the Gauntlet

Somalia's turbulence on ground and sea

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Now is a good time to be a pirate, with all the hijackings in the Gulf of Aden near Somalia. A Ukrainian ship carrying 33 tanks on its way to southern Sudan was seized in September. Two weeks ago, a Saudi-owned oil tanker, the Sirius Star, was captured causing a media storm. Upward of $30 million was paid out in ransoms to return 97 hijacked ships so far this year. All of this news has Centre for Military and Strategy Studies graduate student Daniel Fitzsimmons concerned with the heavy price of piracy.

"The Gulf of Aden leads into the Suez Canal, a passage through which an estimated 30 per cent of the world's oil is transported," said Fitzsimmons. "The capture of the Sirius Star is a recent example of the risks large tankers take to hasten oil delivery around the world. To avoid piracy, some cargo carriers would have to take the longer route around southern Africa, which takes more time and consumes more oil."

Pirate violence can be traced back to the failing conditions in Somalia where there has not been a functioning state for 18 years, noted strategic studies masters student Jean-Pierre Shamvu. The lack of a central government in Somalia, worsening poverty conditions, warlords, a civil war with Islamists and regions like Puntland and Somaliland fighting for their autonomy has created a perfect situation for piracy. Many failed states become easy prey to various criminal activities, with resources up for grabs by many people and organizations.

"Somalia doesn't create piracy, but the latter thrives on Somalia's failure," said Shamvu. "These pirates claim to be attacking vessels because foreign powers have abused their waters through overfishing and dumping of toxic waste. These claims are taken seriously because they're shared by African states that are unable to control their coastlines."

He added officials said ransoms will be used to clean coastlines, but doubts their motivation due to ongoing corruption.

Political studies associate professor Gavin Cameron pointed out that the size of the Gulf of Aden means it is easy for the small boats the pirates use to slip though and few states are willing to commit the necessary resources to stop the attacks.

"The cost of enforcement would be borne by just a few relatively small navies like Canada," said Cameron. "You can't change that piracy doesn't matter as much as Iraq or Afghanistan for the U.S. India is a better long-term bet, given the geography and because the economic cost of piracy may be greater for countries in the region."

The problem is not lack of laws, but a lack of adequate enforcement of existing laws, he said.

"If the Royal Navy captured pirates and transported them to U.K., then pirates have rights to apply for asylum, so they have been told explicitly not to bring them back to British water," Cameron explained. "But where can we send them? Somalia, as a failed state, is clearly not an option either since that is the root of the problem to begin with."

Fitzsimmons noted there might be change in the future due to pirates awaiting trial after being captured by the French military in an operation in April 2008. The French are hoping to set a precedent by trying and convicting these pirates. The United Nations also established anti-piracy laws where countries can lawfully use "necessary means" to stop piracy in international waters, though he warned they may not be enough.

"Their main priority is on protecting the United Nations World Food program shipments and the piracy falls outside the UN-NATO mandate," said Fitzsimmons.

Shamvu felt the media attention and military reaction ignored the issue of sending in heavy vessels and not enough attention is paid to rebuilding Somalia.

"The current deployment of navies from the military powers can be only a transitional solution," said Shamvu. "Vessels have been deployed in the Gulf of Aden for months now, but piracy is continuing despite their presence. Rebuilding and strengthening Somalia so it is capable of controlling all of its territory and cutting down on poverty is the solution."