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The Daily Need

Viewer response: How the international community fights piracy

In response to our recent segments on piracy in Somalia, several viewers have asked us what, if any, action the international community is taking to combat piracy.

International bodies such as the European Union and United Nations have already taken collective action to patrol the waters along Somalia’s coast and authorize military action to protect civilian and commercial vessels from pirates. In January 2008, for example, the U.N. Security Council authorized countries whose ships have been targeted by pirates, such as France and the United States, to sail into Somalia’s territorial waters and militarily confront pirates there. And in December 2008, the U.N. expanded its authorization to include acts of military force against Somali pirates by land and air.

The European Union has also established a program known as Operation Atalanta, or European Naval Force Somalia, with the goal of deterring or repressing acts of piracy off Somali’s coast. The operation has had some success in apprehending pirates and preventing attempted hijackings. Since its founding, the EU Naval Force has arrested 92 people at sea, who were later transferred to Kenya, Seychelles or Spain for prosecution.

However, not all of the international community’s anti-piracy efforts have had such success. NATO, for example, has established its own piracy task force, Operation Ocean Shield, but some members of the operation have expressed frustration at the limitations on their mandate. A senior member of the NATO anti-piracy task force told the BBC in October, “When we come across a boat with ladders on board, we can be sure they are pirates.” And yet, few countries are willing to try the pirates in their courts. So more often than not, NATO forces end up confiscating the pirates’ weapons and allowing them to keep enough fuel to sail back to Somalia.

Despite the increased use of force by the international community, the Somali pirates have continued to press further into the Indian Ocean. As the commander of Operation Atalanta, Rear Admiral Peter Hudson, points out in “The Trouble with Pirates,” one of the challenges in confronting and preventing piracy in the Indian Ocean is the sheer size of the area the international forces must patrol.

“The coastline of Somalia is 3,000 kilometers long, which is equivalent to the eastern seaboard of the United States,” Hudson told the filmmakers. “The surface area of the ocean in the Gulf of Aden and the northern part of the Indian Ocean is one and a half-million square miles, two-thirds the size of the continental land mass of the United States. With a million and a half square miles of ocean, half a dozen ships, I’m afraid we’re not going to catch every pirate.”

However, Operation Atalanta has been successful in at least one of its primary goals: protecting World Food Programme ships as they transport food aid to displaced people in Somalia. Under Operation Atalanta, none of the ships carrying WFP aid to Somali refugees have been attacked by pirates so far.

Many international officials believe that the long-term response to piracy must not be limited to military force, and the U.N. has called for an integrated response to the problem moving forward. Lynn Pascoe, the U.N. under-secretary-general for political affairs, said in a statement earlier this month that warships alone will not stop piracy.

“We need to continue to fight this battle in the broadest manner, focusing simultaneously on deterrence, security and the rule of law, as well providing economic alternatives for Somali youth,” Pascoe said. “Economic rehabilitation and the creation of alternative livelihoods, especially the development and rehabilitation of coastal fisheries, must be at the centre of our efforts to fight piracy.”

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