Last Tuesday, the Security Council of the United Nations unanimously adopted a resolution extending the ability for foreign powers to continue anti-piracy operations in the seas of the Horn of Africa for the next year. Resolution 1846 (2008) sets out that States and regional organizations may use "all necessary means" to fight the pirates, what looks on first glance as being a response from the world body to recent events.
Indeed, this has led some - such as the Associated Press and The Economic Times - to report that the resolution allows naval vessels to enter sovereign Somali waters in order to apprehend pirates or end hostage-takings, something that many have been advocating for some time. Unfortunately, Resolution 1846 (2008) does not grant such ability.
While expressing concerns about the way piracy has grown off Somalia, fueled by escalating ransoms paid, the Security Council actually makes clear that foreign naval vessels may only enter the territorial waters of Somalia once they have received permission from the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), the internationally-recognized entity considered that nation's government.
Fundamentally, the Resolution allows for nations to continue patrolling the high seas of the Indian Ocean off East Africa without facing sanctions or other legal actions; it highlights the need to safeguard the delivery of humanitarian aid by sea; and it does allow for entry within the 12 nautical mile limit - but only by assuming the TFG grants authority to do so.
The situation in that part of East Africa remains hamstrung by political and legal niceties being mouthed in the face of rampant lawlessness. The Resolution begins by "Reaffirming [the Security Council's] respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, political independence and unity of Somalia." Yet this is a nation, to use the term loosely, that is anything but sovereign, integrated or unified. So is the UN's resolution just more hot air?
Well, yes and no. It's easy to be an armchair critic and bash the UN for its inability to come up with something more forceful here than a resolution that appears weak. And this resolution is unlikely to scare the pirates too much. There's nothing set out in it about how to really deal with piracy off Somalia, though that could be a good thing inasmuch as it leaves interpretation open to various nations. (See also a look at the legalities of this in Eaglespeaks's recent commentary.)
Nevertheless, this forgets that the UN and its various units - such as the World Food Programme - do much more to help the people of Somalia than we are aware of. Their main concern is to feed, clothe and care for millions of people, so it's that bit about safeguarding the delivery of humanitarian aid that's important.