Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The piracy problem

A good sum up from the Brattleboro Reformer's editorial, 14 April 2009

The story had a happy ending, but the problem remains.

The U.S. Navy was able to safely rescue Capt. Richard Phillips of Underhill on Sunday in a daring sniper attack, ending a five-day hostage drama off the Somali coast.

Phillips, who bravely gave himself up to save the lives of the 19 U.S. crew members on the container ship Maersk Alabama, is believed to have been the first U.S. citizen taken by pirates since 1804, when U.S. Navy Commodore Stephen Decatur battled the infamous Barbary pirates off the northern coast of what is now Libya.

But pirates are still holding about a dozen ships with more than 200 crew members, according to the Malaysia-based piracy watchdog International Maritime Bureau. Hostages are from Bulgaria, China, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, the Philippines, Russia, Taiwan, Tuvalu and Ukraine, among other countries.

Piracy is big business in Somalia right now. Attacks in the Gulf of Aden and along Somalia's coast have risen dramatically, from 41 in 2007 to 111 in 2008, according to the International Maritime Bureau. These pirates have earned between $30 million and $80 million in ransom through the seizure of 42 vessels in 2008. The average ransom per ship ranges between $1 million and $2 million.

Somalia hasn't had a real government for nearly 20 years. Anarchy has been the rule, with rival clans fighting for control. Now that these clans have discovered that around 25,000 ships -- most of them unarmed -- go through the Gulf of Aden each year, they see plenty of opportunities to pick up money.

Somalis say the piracy is payback for the more than $300 million worth of tuna, shrimp, and lobster they say is hauled in every year by illegal foreign trawlers off Somalia's coast, forcing the collapse of the local fishing industry. Also, since the collapse of the Somali government in 1991, Asian and European nations have been accused of using the nation's coastline as a dump for toxic and nuclear waste.

The pirates first emerged as a way to stop the foreign vessels, but that wasn't as lucrative as hijacking commercial vessels for ransom. The Somali coastline is the longest in Africa, about 1,900 miles long. And the pirates aren't ragtag amateurs. Operating with speedboats equipped with satellite phones, GPS equipment and weaponry such as machine guns and grenade launchers, they can quickly overwhelm a merchant ship.

In a country where the average life expectancy is 46 and about a quarter of all children die before the age of 5, piracy looks like a great option to the average Somali. In some of the coastal towns, the pirates have provided wealth and economic growth unknown in other parts of Somalia.

Until there is a functioning central government in Somalia, there is little that can be done to stop the piracy. There are two dozen international warships patrolling an area that's nearly five times the size of Texas.

More warships doing patrols and escorting vulnerable ships might help, but the international community needs to help Somalia get its act together and give its people another path to a decent life besides crime. This could be as simple as enforcing the fishing regulations to give the Somali fishing fleet a chance to recover.

So while we as Vermonters rejoice in seeing Capt. Phillips rescued, there are still many more hostages waiting for their freedom in what has become a very dangerous place for the world's seafarers.

Precisely because we're only being told half the story... read this from Ten Percent: Background Links On Somalia Beyond Pirate Tales & Black Hawk Down and recent posts on Somalia in Jeremy Scahill's new blog RebelReports

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