Can we afford to drop the guard against piracy?

Maritime security is about much more than piracy, but broad approaches shouldn’t detract from effective anti-piracy measures.

Pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia have dropped dramatically over the past eight years – from 237 incidents in 2011 to nine in 2017 and just three attempted attacks in 2018. However criminal networks continue to operate in Somalia, and as long as this happens, the threat of a resurgence of piracy will loom over the region.

Important reforms to counter-piracy policy and practice in the Western Indian Ocean are currently under way, partly because of this drop in piracy. Those involved in making these changes must ensure that security measures that have proved to work are not undermined, and that solutions to piracy are sustainable.

At the same time, ways must be found to use existing counter-piracy resources and strategies in the fight against other maritime crimes such as illegal fishing and the trafficking in goods, people and narcotics.

Members of the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia met in Mauritius in June to discuss broadening the group’s mandate to include other maritime security issues. They agreed that regional states should lead efforts against piracy and related threats. Kenya was elected to chair the group for the next two years. Delegates stressed the need for more coordination of existing initiatives, and clarified the role that international naval forces should play in the region.

Before broadening maritime security beyond piracy, root causes that originate on land must be tackled

The meeting was preceded by an important decision to reduce the geographical boundaries of the High Risk Area for piracy in the Indian Ocean from 1 May. The decision was taken in March by the Round Table of international shipping associations and the Oil Companies International Marine Forum.

The High Risk Area – established in 2010 in response to the increase in piracy and armed robbery off the coast of Somalia – denotes a geographical area where ships are at the greatest risk of being attacked. Safety guidelines for this zone were developed for ship masters travelling through the High Risk Area. These guidelines were key to bringing down piracy off Somalia’s coast.

For example, ships navigating through the region are encouraged to increase their speed and install protective systems on board. They are also asked to follow the predetermined and protected Maritime Security Transit Corridor, making it harder for pirates to attack.

The reduction in size of the High Risk Area shows that international shipping industries believe the threat of Somali piracy has declined to such an extent that they can sail closer to the Horn of Africa. This significantly reduces fuel costs and sailing times in the region.

International shipping industries believe it is now safe to sail closer to the Horn of Africa

Another example of the move to broaden maritime security beyond piracy is the amendments to the Djibouti Code of Conduct. Signatories to the code, a key counter-piracy and maritime security instrument created in 2017, met in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in April to discuss implementation of the amendments.

The Jeddah Amendments were introduced in response to the threat of other maritime crimes to shipping in the region. These include trafficking in people, arms and drugs, illegal fishing and toxic waste dumping. With 14 out of 20 signatory countries being African, it is clear that Africa is taking the lead on this important maritime initiative.

Each of the institutions and mechanisms discussed here originate from successful multilateral efforts to overcome the threat of Somali-based piracy, which has largely disappeared from the Indian Ocean. This is a significant achievement, but states need to guard against complacency.

The most recent piracy attack in the Western Indian Ocean occurred from 21 to 23 April this year. The incident began with a group of pirates capturing the Yemeni fishing dhow Al Azham in Somali territorial waters. The vessel was resupplied with a pirate crew at a Somali pirate base camp, and was later used as a mothership in an attack on the Korean fishing vessel FV Adria 280 nautical miles off the coast of Somalia.

Maritime security off the coast of Somalia still depends on the presence of foreign naval forces

FV Adria performed an evasive manoeuvre and increased its speed, as per the best practice guidelines, and the attack was eventually repelled by the private security guards on board. The pirates were apprehended by the European Union Naval Force, and were delivered to Seychelles for trial.

This incident illustrates the success of the counter-piracy security architecture that has been established in the region. But it also shows how easily pirates can re-equip and take to the seas again, and that maritime security still depends on the presence of foreign naval forces.

Nevertheless counter-piracy stakeholders seem to agree that other maritime threats should now be prioritised – even though piracy is still a risk for ships in the region, especially if the collective guard is dropped.

A 2018 report by the University of Copenhagen’s Centre for Military Studies shows how successful international counter-piracy measures have forced some criminal networks to switch to lower-risk crimes, such as trafficking in people, drugs and arms. If security measures around piracy are relaxed, these groups still have the means to attack ships off Somalia if the opportunity arises.

Given the interconnected nature of maritime crime, a holistic approach will ensure a sustainable solution to piracy. But broadening maritime security beyond piracy shouldn’t be done without tackling the root causes that originate on land and allow criminal networks to proliferate and adapt. These include poverty, instability, weak governing structures and unemployment in Somalia.

Peace and stability in Somalia – requirements for preventing piracy – are not yet in sight. While this situation prevails, maintaining effective responses to piracy must be the priority.

Denys Reva, Junior Researcher, Peace Operations and Peacebuilding, ISS Pretoria

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