Pirates of the Indian Ocean: On Modern Piracy and the Implications for International Law

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Bridging the chasm between Hollywood storytelling and real world issues is often predicated on a choice by the audience to suspend disbelief. In the case of the 2013 film, Captain Phillips, this internal dilemma could be as minute as, “Wow, Forrest Gump hasn’t aged well” or as pedantic as, “This film really over-simplifies maritime security issues.” Let’s pretend for a moment that you’re of the latter disposition.

The film, a decidedly less whimsical take on piracy than the namesake of this article, attempts to depict ongoing piracy issues in the Horn of Africa. At its peak, Somali piracy has been estimated to cost the global economy approximately $USD18 billion and has been referred to as “the current greatest threat to maritime security”. The seeds of this phenomenon were planted in the early 1990s with the collapse of the regional government and the consequent fragmentation of the state military. These events left the Somali waters and, by extension, the futures of numerous coastal-dwellers who relied on the ocean for their livelihoods, largely unprotected. This opened the proverbial floodgates for an array of activities, from overfishing to toxic waste dumping, by foreign vessels. While various bodies, from environmental groups to NGOs, have labelled these activities “illegal”, the lack of any enforcement mechanisms to uphold these allegations render notions of legality a rather moot point. For all practical intents and purposes, the transgressions of foreign vessels in these waters exist in a grey area of international law.

Overfishing and the severe depletion of marine habitat delivered a major blow to the livelihoods of people living along the Somali coastline. To compensate for the loss in income, impoverished fishermen began seizing foreign vessels that ventured into these waters in exchange for ransom, effectively laying the groundwork for modern day piracy – a narrative more sobering than the fanciful tale of buccaneers and buried gold that Robert Louis Stevenson conceived. These scattered occurrences soon consolidated into elaborate crime syndicates, giving rise to pirate kingpins who are more Blackbeard than Jack Sparrow. Without a formal naval presence in the region, pirate gangs initially represented a form of vigilante justice on the high seas. What began as a symptom of anarchy soon morphed into a multi-million dollar ‘pirate economy’ that largely replaced traditional income streams for those along the Somali coast and galvanised the world into developing solutions for the crisis.

Thus far, these solutions have treated piracy as the problem rather than as symptomatic of broader issues. In 2008, the European Union and NATO pledged to curb piracy off the coast of Somalia by monitoring these waters – a move that coincided with the return en masse of foreign vessels that promptly resumed fishing and dumping toxic waste in the region. Just three years prior, the 2005 Indian Ocean tsunami saw barrels of nuclear waste, lead, and heavy metals wash ashore, leading to radiation sickness and death among the coastal population. Treating piracy as the problem is a band-aid solution that does not address the underlying issues and instead contributes to a proliferation of crises like these, that inevitably trigger a chain reaction of consequences – in particular the displacement of innumerable people – that impact the world at large.

However, since the beginning of the piracy narrative there has been some change on these fronts. The election of a Somali federal government in 2012 meant that, for the first time in over two decades, there was a governing body monitoring the situation along the 200-nautical-mile coastline vis-à-vis the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. While this should throw some of the legal grey areas into sharp relief, the situation has simply grown too complex and deeply entrenched for a relatively young and inexperienced government to adequately manage. Although piracy has dropped considerably every year since 2012, the activities of foreign vessels in these waters continue largely unchecked. The current President of Somalia, Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud, concedes these points himself in stating, “The damage is so extensive that even if trawling were stopped today, this area may need years to recover. […] We lack the ability to police our vast waters.”

There are two takeaways from this.

Firstly, that this likely marks a shift in the piracy narrative. A phenomenon borne of anarchy will now have to adapt to governance – something it has already begun doing, with recent reports claiming that former pirates have begun offering protection services in defence against piracy to ships traversing the waters.

Secondly, and perhaps more pressingly, the President seriously squandered an opportunity to address the pirates directly with a menacing, “Look at me. I am the captain now.”

Ayaan Omar is a first year Juris Doctor student at UWA whose interests include international law, politics, and finding increasingly innovative ways to avoid doing her readings.

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