Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Dispelling the myth of Somali pirates as 'Robin Hoods'

The Toronto Star posted a piece in yesterday's online edition that continues to perpetuate the wrong idea about those Somalis engaging in attacks on vessels in the seas off the Horn of Africa. It's written by brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger, well-known Canadian activists for international children's rights and founders of Free The Children, though the article does little to advance the plight facing regular Somalis of any age.

The crux of their piece is the same as has been put forward by numerous others, namely that the actions of Somali pirates can be justified given the dire conditions facing those living ashore and, more importantly, the activities of foreign fishing vessels and illegal waste dumpers.

This is, in a word, bullcrap.

The authors mention one Somali facing trail for piracy in The Netherlands. According to his lawyer, the man, "[I]s a modern-day Robin Hood. Stealing from the ships of rich countries to give to poor families back in war-torn Somalia." Now, 'Robin Hood' certainly implies someone who supposedly steals from the rich to give to the poor, spreading the wealth around, so to speak. Well, Somali pirate gangs haven't exactly been doing that: see, for instance, the report from last week prepared by the BBC's Andrew Harding, about his visit to a pirate village and you'll see little in the way of economic improvement in the community. And if you could ask any Somalian about how they feel when food aid deliveries are disrupted by pirates attacking commercial vessels under charter to groups like the United Nations, I'm sure the response would be less than positive.

The article goes on to label those engaged in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU, to give it the term most commonly used) and waste dumping as also being pirates, stating that, "To the [Somali] fishermen, these ships are the pirates." Later, the Kielburgers add, "The international community needs to start pointing fingers at the other group of pirates — ones that hail from shores closer to our own. There are two groups of pirates off of the Horn of Africa. We need to bring all of them to justice."

The problem I have with pieces like this is that diminishes the violent attacks being perpetrated by Somali pirates, equating them with illegal fishing operations. Let me clear about my position here: Those foreigners engaging in over-fishing or the dumping of toxic waste are not pirates; they are many other things, but they are not pirates.

It seems to me that some are being duped into believing a sort of 'eco-warrior' myth about the pirates, one which appears more and more to be part of a concerted effort by Somali gangs to re-fashion their image and play to the heart-strings of Westerners. And these slow, Summer months - slow for pirates - provide the perfect opportunity for their spokespeople and supporters to push this agenda in the media. After all, if there are fewer violent attacks going on in the region's seas, any tales of Robin Hood-like Somalis will not be offset by the reality of armed men boarding passing vessels and threatening their crews.

As well, if the Somali pirates were really serious about defending their waters against over-fishing and other illegal activities, one would assume they'd be using their formidable firepower and nautical prowess to patrol and secure those self-same seas. But when was the last time you heard of some 'Somali coastguards' scaring off fishing trawlers or working with foreign naval vessels to deal with this issue?

More to the point, the issues of illegal fishing and waste dumping are not something new; these activities began back in the 1990s. Though to read many of the articles that bring this up, they would appear to be recent phenomena. It was a trigger - one of several, in fact - but not the only reason for piracy to explode off the Horn of Africa.

Check out Daniel Howden's piece in last weekend's Sunday Independent, out of South Africa. it's a far more nuanced and detailed look at how one Somali man went from mechanic to fisherman to pirate to prisoner. And though he is clearly angry about over-fishing, the man - Farrah Ismail - says that much of this activity happened well over a decade ago, with the turning point being an attack by Somalis on a Kenyan trawler in 1997.

In Ismail's own words, he has little sympathy for mariners he and others have preyed upon. "I don't give a shit about them...They are like cattle to me, these ships are mine. Why don't you give consideration about the destruction they did to us?" before adding, "Finally, the rest of the world knows that hijacking ships was a punishment from us."

Anger, greed, corruption, lawlessness...these are what have driven men like Ismail to become pirates, not some egalitarian ideals. One does not attack aid vessels while espousing a moral high ground, to say nothing of targeting pleasure boaters or passing tugs.

Earlier today the Dutch freighter MV Marathon was released after being hijacked on May 7. Of its crew of eight Ukrainian seafarers, one was killed when the pirates attacked, while a second was wounded. Is the death of this mariner justified by the actions of other seafarers? I don't believe so.

There are currently at least fourteen vessels and possibly as many as 200 seafarers being held captive by Somali pirates. And while some of the vessels may have been engaged in illegal activities at the time of their capture, most had nothing to do with what's going ashore in Somalia, or off its coastline. (As today's Reuters Factbox reveals, among the captive ships are tugs and barges, a catamaran and a dredging vessel that was sailing some 370 nautical miles off the Somali coast while en route to the Seychelles.)

There are many types of criminals to be found in the seas off the Horn of Africa, but only one group are pirates.

Somali pirates with hostages aboard the French yacht Tanit, seized in early April while sailing off the Horn of Africa. Skipper Florent Lemacon (seated left foreground) was killed in a firefight on April 10, when French commandos stormed the boat. (photo: Ecpad-French Defense Ministry)

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