Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Somali piracy, part 3


With Somali pirates feeling no compunction about hijacking the delivery of humanitarian relief, the simple solution would appear to be calling on naval forces for assistance, having some sort of armed escorts out there to protect the aid vessels as they steam from Mombasa to Somalia, a trip that normally takes less than three days. But this has, so far, failed to occur. Warships from a variety of coalition nations do operate in the area from time to time, though their main role is related to the war on terror, not combating piracy. There was an incident last year when the crew of the American destroyer USS Winston S. Churchill captured a gang of Somali pirates, but that was an accidental encounter and there have been far more cases where naval vessels did not respond to pleas from ships under attack because of legal issues.

Ordering a warship to engage suspected Somali pirates at sea is not something taken lightly by officials in Ottawa, Washington or other capitals. It requires confirming a criminal act has been committed in international waters, receiving political approval to react and then carrying out the orders, a process that can take hours. In the meantime, pirates can flee to the security of the twelve-mile limit of Somali territorial waters, where foreign vessels cannot follow without the express permission of the local government, something the TFG has so far not allowed.

Still, the World Food Programme knows that naval escorts of any kind would go a long way to help convince shipping firms to resume delivering their humanitarian aid. In July, the head of the WFP and the head of the UN’s International Maritime Organisation (IMO) made a joint call for concerted and coordinated action to be taken against pirates off the coast of Somalia. This led to Security Council encouraging Member States to be ‘vigilant’ about Somali piracy; now the hope is that words will become deeds. And one result of all this, albeit for a very short term, is a squadron of six NATO vessels currently on patrol in the Indian Ocean, including the frigate HMCS Toronto.

HMCS Toronto off Somalia, 20 September 2007
Photo by MCpl Kevin Paul, Canadian Forces Combat Camera

The Canadian warship and her crew of some 235 sailed from Halifax in July to join the Standing NATO Maritime Group 1 (SNMG1) as the squadron sailed around the continent of Africa. The stated goals of the mission are to develop an awareness of the maritime situation off Africa and prove the ability of NATO to send ships outside the normal area of operations in the North Atlantic, and SNMG1 has already visited the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa and done maneuvers with the South African Navy. Dealing with piracy may not be part of the mission but everyone aboard HMCS Toronto knows about the attacks off Somalia, says the frigate’s Executive Officer, Lieutenant Commander Angus Topshee.

“The crew is very aware of piracy,” he says by satellite phone as the warship takes up station not far off the coast of Somalia. “We’ve adopted an unusually high force protection posture because we’re going to be traveling in a known area of piracy. Every nation is required under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to repress piracy on the high seas and each one of us is prepared and is trained and ready to take action if there’s a pirate attack. And I’ll be honest, the ship’s company would like nothing more right now than to come across a pirate attack and do something about it.”

AB Iain Pattison fires his 12-gauge shotgun off the quarterdeck during a weapons drill
Photo by MCpl Kevin Paul, Canadian Forces Combat Camera

Like Andrew Mwangura in Mombasa, LCdr. Topshee is also aware that the pirates are smart and know the rules of the game, such as the inability of foreign ships like HMCS Toronto to enter Somali territorial waters. Unless the squadron happens upon a pirate boat out in international waters engaged in criminal activities, there may be little real action for the naval crews. And with only a week or so allocated to patrol the area before heading towards the Red Sea, this may prove merely a test for future deployments, something that senior naval officials in various countries have indicated a willingness to consider.

“If you’d asked me this question just four or five years ago,” LCdr. Topshee explain, “I’d have said ‘No, pirates don’t exist, this is nonsense.’ But the reality is the modern day pirate is alive and well, with a keen economic sense and with a vicious determination to get whatever money they can out of people. We find it very frustrating that the generosity of nations can’t get through to the people who so desperately need it.”

Boarding party from HMCS Toronto visits dhow off the coast of Somalia, 28 Sept 2007
Photo by MCpl Kevin Paul, Canadian Forces Combat Camera

It seems likely that as soon as the NATO warships sail over the horizon for home, the pirates will resume their attacks. Shipping firms will risk taking in commercial cargos to Somalia, but shun carrying humanitarian aid unless they get armed escorts. And stockpiles of food will sit in warehouses in Mombasa while over a million hungry people wonder why they’ve been forgotten. Until its people can show some concrete results in overcoming strife and creating a stabile society, the outside world will remain just barely interested in Somalia. But without outside assistance to feed and shelter its people, to safeguard the aid supplies and to secure a lasting peace, the country will be unable to rebuild itself. Ignored, destroyed and destitute, Somalia faces the bleak prospect of continuing as a failed state trapped in a state of limbo.

“Yeah, dealing with the Somali situation is very frustrating for me,” admits Peter Smerdon in Nairobi. “We’re trying to feed people in need, but logistics – delivering food – is not that sexy. There are no blue helmets, no white UN vehicles, no Western troops handing out food to dying people in a war zone. This is nuts and bolts work we’re doing but it is among the most vital things the United Nations can do. We must feed these people because we’re talking about millions of people – millions – who are going hungry, are susceptible to disease and unable to function. And if we can secure our supply lines now, then we have a chance to avert a greater tragedy in Somalia in the future.”

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