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U.N. Takes New Steps to Curb Somalia’s Pirates

December 17, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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After several recent pirate attacks, the U.N. Security Council authorized land and air operations to help stop the flow of the fighters from bases in Somalia. Experts examine the ramifications of the U.N. action.

RAY SUAREZ: During 2008, more than 40 ships have been seized in the lawless shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden between Yemen and the Horn of Africa, four attacks in just the last day.

At least 14 ships with more than 200 crew are still being held. One boat, a Ukrainian freighter, carries 33 Russian-made T-72 battle tanks. The pirates are asking a $20 million ransom.

Another vessel, the Saudi-flagged Sirius Star, holds more than $100 million in oil bound for the U.S.

In an attempt to stop the hijackings, the U.N. Security Council yesterday passed a resolution authorizing military forces to go ashore in Somalia, where many of the pirates are based. The vote had faced opposition from some nations, but was passed unanimously.

Somalia has been in a state of barely contained anarchy for much of the last 20 years. Nevertheless, the fractious Somali government must approve any landings.

Last week, a Somali U.N. representative described the depth of the problem his country faces from piracy.

AHMEDOU OULD-ABDALLAH, U.N. Special representative for Somalia: Inside Somalia, piracy affects peace and stability. It certainly fuels violence. As it generates large income to its sponsors and their associates, it undermines the effectiveness and legitimacy of local, provincial, and national authorities.

RAY SUAREZ: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke of the pirate threat after yesterday’s vote.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, secretary of State: To make piracy costlier and more difficult to undertake, the United States, with the agreement of the Somali transitional federal government, believes that the Security Council’s authorization today, that states may pursue pirates into their places of operation on land, will have a significant impact.

RAY SUAREZ: There were no details on when, how, or which nation’s forces would go ashore. The commander of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, deployed in the region, recently expressed doubts about the utility of such missions.

A flotilla of navy vessels from many countries, including the U.S., France, Russia, Denmark, and, soon, China, is patrolling the broad expanse of water.

A Dutch navy commander recently described his mission.

COMMANDER PETER REESINK, Royal Netherlands Navy: We try to scare away, scare them away. We will try to call them on different radio circuits. If that doesn’t help, we will shoot some flares. If it doesn’t help, we’ll try a shot for the bow first. And if that doesn’t work, then we start to aim and fire directly.

RAY SUAREZ: The assembled navies have acted, repelling pirates amid attacks and giving chase. Danish special forces recently boarded a pirate ship, captured its crew, and sunk the vessel in the Gulf of Aden.

For more on all of this, we get two views. Vice Admiral Kevin Cosgriff was commander of U.S. Naval Forces in the Middle East, Arabian Sea, and Indian Ocean. He retired in September this year.

And Emira Woods, co-director of foreign policy in focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, a think-tank working on domestic and international issues.

Piracy has political roots

RAY SUAREZ: And, Emira Woods, let me start with you. Did this U.N. resolution create or at least begin the creation of a response to international piracy off Somalia?

EMIRA WOODS, Institute for Policy Studies: The answer, Ray, is no. The resolution is a stopgap measure. What is needed in the case of Somalia is actually addressing the root causes of the crises.

The crisis in Somalia is because of the lack of a government in Somalia. It is a political crisis. The U.N. has had much experience creating a process through which people, civilians in the country, can work to create their own governments, governments that work to meet their needs.

That is the process that's needed here in Somalia. That is not the process that the resolution has advanced.

What has happened is the resolution has put forward a stopgap measure, a military measure, that will, in fact, leave civilians in harm's way as now we see forces potentially going on land to strike at these alleged pirates.

RAY SUAREZ: Admiral Cosgriff, what do you think? Will the resolution help stop piracy?

VICE ADM. KEVIN COSGRIFF, Former U.S. Navy: Well, I think it will. I agree with Emira that the long-term solution is to address the needs of the Somali population, where they live and to meet the particular needs of governance in that country.

In the near term, however, there is lawlessness and violence occurring at sea against innocent ships and their crews, which has gotten to a point of late that the international community, through this resolution, has decided to act.

And what's different about this is to raise the stakes, to say, if necessary or opportune, that we, the international community, may choose to take the problem ashore where the pirates live.

America's role in containing piracy

RAY SUAREZ: What about Secretary Rice's role? She was there very prominently for the Security Council debate, called on other nations to act. Is it clear what America's ready to do or not ready to do in the gulf there?

VICE ADM. KEVIN COSGRIFF: Well, I think what this lays out is an international framework that will help many of the countries that were looking for such a mandate to be helpful.

There's a number of things in play here. There are the shipping companies being more mindful and taking actions that they can take. There's trying to help in the judicial sphere when you capture these people and detain them, perhaps we need a better, more facile way to bring them to justice.

Where do the fruits of piracy go? How are we chasing down the money and holding that at risk?

And, of course, what wraps around all this, as Emira pointed out, is the utility of military forces, in this case, predominantly naval forces, to actually be out at sea, patrolling this area, acting as an on-scene deterrent and, as necessary, an interdiction force.

RAY SUAREZ: What do you see the American role being in or not being in solving this problem?

EMIRA WOODS: Well, Ray, we have to remember it was two years ago, almost to this day, that the air strikes started from the Americans on to Somali soil, allegedly in search of terrorists. But, clearly, it was to oust a government that had been in place in Somalia.

Again, Americans chose sides; the Somalis paid the price. That regime change has led to chaos.

What the Americans could do is work with the United Nations and actually put forward a framework that addresses the needs of the Somali people, a framework that brings a government that is seen as credible by the Somali people, also, a framework for the economic crisis in Somalia to be resolved.

We have to remember that there are 3.5 million Somalis that are facing food shortages right now as a result of an economic crisis in the country. These very fisher folk actually have no means of livelihood. They started out as fisher folk, surviving on the means of the oceans, and essentially you had large international vessels doing illegal fishing. You had the dumping of toxic waste in the river ways off of Somalia.

So these fisher folk have seen their livelihood essentially disappear. And without a government to be able to monitor those shores, what you have had is an escalating catastrophe over the last few weeks.

RAY SUAREZ: Without a government. So it sounds like you agree with Secretary Rice that piracy is a symptom and not a cause in itself. But if the world community went to work on Somalia, wouldn't piracy continue until that long project of standing up a Somali government was done?

EMIRA WOODS: Well, there are short-term measures that could happen, Ray. There are measures through which international illegal activity is held. This is an organized crime, like any other international organized crime.

There are means through which -- there are legal mechanisms through which people can be brought to justice. Those tools should be put into place now. That's an issue of policing.

It is not an issue of military might, particularly military might in the form of land attacks, in the form of aerial bombardment that could put even more civilians at risk.

Other avenues to combat piracy

RAY SUAREZ: One thing the resolution does, Admiral, is open the way for these seaborne forces to follow the pirates back on to land. Does that create a possibility for escalation, really create a whole new level of engagement?

VICE ADM. KEVIN COSGRIFF: Well, a little history, I think, might be important. When I was out there a couple of years ago, we didn't have authority to go inside territorial waters, 12 miles off the coast of Somalia.

So if a pirate vessel had seized a larger ship, they would just sail in and, at the 12-mile point, if we were fortunate to have a ship there at all, our ships would stop.

With the permission of the transitional federal government, we are able to move in shore with them -- closer to shore with the pirated vessels and monitor the goings-on on that ship.

First and foremost, we were concerned about the welfare of the crew. This is about human beings in both instances, and those innocent crew members deserve our consideration, too.

We would open, as appropriate, a way of talking to the pirates who are actually on the ship and say, "Hey, we're here. We're going to stay here." And then the problem would be solved between the owners and the pirates. Especially, the extortion would be successful, and the owners would get their ship back.

What's different is the scope of this has just exploded of late. And the international community -- rightfully so, in my opinion -- has chosen to act, to be more decisive.

It doesn't prescribe that you go ashore. It just suggests there's now a legal framework with many safeguards, with checking with the transitional federal government first, with deep coordination with the United Nations, and then, lastly, following the humane beliefs that this country and others follow, as you heard that Dutch captain say, you know, you start progressively. You want to make sure that you give people the opportunity to recognize what they're doing is wrong and stop.

So I think this is a wonderful foundation for future goodness, frankly, in that country.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Emira Woods, before we go, do you worry about what's been opened by the U.N. calling for hot pursuit onto Somali territory?

EMIRA WOODS: Absolutely. This is a short-gap measure that militarizes an already difficult situation even further. What is needed is addressing the long-term political needs, this resolution of the political crisis in Somalia. What is needed is for the Somali people to be able to choose their own leadership, to be able to then hold that leadership accountable.

It is through governance that the territories of Somalia can be respected, that sovereignty of Somalia can be respected, and those shores can be monitored, by, in the waning days of a Bush administration, essentially, opening up the door to military attacks, as have happened in these last two years.

What you're going to do is create even more anti-American sentiment at just the worst time for a new Obama administration.

RAY SUAREZ: Emira Woods, Admiral Cosgriff, thank you, both.

EMIRA WOODS: My pleasure. Thank you.