Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Who Are The Real Pirates In Somalia? Not Academics

The first part of the title of this commentary is taken from a piece posted by Dr. Alexander Mezyaev yesterday in which he wades into the issue of piracy off the Horn of Africa (HoA). The entire piece can be seen on the Aduunyo website by clicking here. Aduunyo is a site which aims to promote a positive Somali image.

Mezyaev's piece was picked up by Ecoterra and included in their most recent update on the status of vessels and crews seized off Somalia, the Gulf of Aden (GoA) and in the Indian Ocean. It's likely to get picked up by other media groups, too, because it offers the perspective that those Somalis attacking vessels in the region are not really pirates. They are, in his opinion, victims of foreign aggression who are being persecuted (my word) by the international community.

As the "Head, Chair of the International Law, Governance Academy (Kazan')", I would hope Dr. Mezyaev would be well-versed in the details of maritime law, and has perhaps spent some time in the field talking to those who have been affected by maritime crime off the HoA and, just possibly, some of those who commit these acts. However, I seriously doubt he's ever left his office.

Like many others, Mezyaev seems to have fallen in love with the idea that those guys ranging around the seas off Somalia in small craft armed with Kalashnikovs are merely trying to protect their sovereign rights to the natural resources lying beneath the ocean. And these misguided perspectives need to be met head-on with facts.

Let's set this up: Are foreigners illegally fishing off Somalia and dumping waste in those waters? Yes. It's been going on for a decade and a half.

However, IUU activities (that's illegal, unreported and unregulated) are not confined to the waters off Somalia, not by a large margin. It happens in many places, but for some reason only with Somalia is it used as an excuse to justify attacking passing vessels.

Dr. Mezyaev opines that what's going on off Somalia does not constitute piracy and that "The Somali pirates are a myth floated by the global media to divert attention from the international criminal activity taking place in the territorial waters and on the marine shelf of Somalia".

But Mezyaev makes things worse when he writes, "Considering the specific navigational situation in the region, it would be a reasonable view that the ships attacked by pirates (his word) off Somalia's coast actually invaded the Somali territorial waters".

These analyses would be, of course, be news to those mariners attacked well beyond Somalia's nautical borders. Or those pleasure boaters sailing quietly off the coast who were hijacked and held for ransom.

The issue is only partially about the activities of foreigners in the seas off Somalia. In the larger sense it is fundamentally about the activities of criminals preying upon on mariners. And the growth of large-scale organized criminal activity that has found a way to package their business in a manner that is attractive to certain individuals.

To sit in an office an opine on the the situation from a theoretical level strikes someone like myself - who has been there and investigated this topic firsthand for years - as just plain callous. The real pirates are the guys attacking innocent mariners just going about their daily business. There is absolutely no justification for their actions. And I would gladly debate Dr. Mezyaev on this topic, should the opportunity arise.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Piracy Charges Thrown Dismissed In Virginia

A judge in Norfolk, Virginia, yesterday dismissed piracy charges against six Somalis accused of attacking the USS Ashland last April (see my earlier post about the early stages of this incident here). As the Voice Of America reports, the reason appears to be because the men did not actually board or take control of the warship, which is what U.S. statutes define as being acts of piracy. For those who might be angered by this decision, it is important to remember a couple of things.

One is that vigilante justice - "hanging them from the yardarm", so to speak - is not the way to deal with piracy in the 21st century. Maritime criminals like pirates operate outside the rule of law. We cannot stoop to their level. The system of beliefs that supports law and order goes far beyond the confines of a Virginian courtroom. It is international, transcending borders and cultures. It's what separates the thugs and bad guys from most of the rest of us. And if we don't like the existing laws, then we can try to change them.

In the meantime, we have to work with we're given. And for the six Somalis in a Virginia prison, there are still a number of legal issues to be dealt with. I recommend checking out EagleSpeak's take on things (see here ). He's an American attorney and retired US Navy officer, after all. These guys aren't going to be chewing khat again anytime soon. I hope.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Summertime shenanigans, or dodos and dollars

Like a certain flightless bird, yours truly has been unable to fly away while the summer passes. Instead, I've been otherwise occupied, but am now able to, again, spread my wings a bit. (And for those who might be concerned, this is not a harbinger of summer's end. My goodness, we've weeks to go, so just enjoy things, okay?)

But I have been enjoying the ability to find time to read some books long overdue and listen to some interesting conversations on radio and online. The Midrats gang have continued their great looks at various topics, so to anyone not familiar with their online show, check out its site here.

Up here in these northern parts, summer is traditionally the time when anyone and everyone who can heads out of town (myself, of course, excepted). As a result, we Canadians fall prey to the annual phase of 'summer journalism', in which the media finds itself fending fewer experienced resources to cover the news of the day. I'm sure it happens elsewhere, whereupon we're subjected to in-depth looks at the caloric content of smoothies, the relative merits of wearing a helmet while riding a bike or insights on sunscreen prevention. All filler in other times, but - somehow - front page news in July.

Governments are not unaware of the languid nature of media reporting in the summertime, often trying to slip an official item pass us during this time, in the hope no one will notice. And quite often we don't, at least not enough to do anything measurable.

But a month ago the Canadian government floated - no pun intended - a proposal to replace our navy's aged supply vessels in just such a manner. The Navy, and its allies, rely on two Canadian-built vessels, HMCS Preserver and Protecteur, commissioned in 1969-70 to resupply their vessels at sea. If they were working commercial vessels, they'd be considered rustbuckets. But naval supply ships don't bear near the stresses that commercial vessels face, so their lives can extend. Still, these two ships are well passed their primes in terms of their nautical status, to say nothing of being effectively ancient to the Canadian Armed Forces. The issue is that after forty years these ships clearly need to be replaced.

HMCS Preserver off New York (DND photo)

The problem from this observer's perspective is the amount of money that is intended to be spent to replace the two supply vessels, the way it is intended to spent and, of course, the manner in which the whole idea was rolled out.

As reported in The Globe & Mail newspaper a couple of weeks ago, the government feels it must replace them because, according to an internal briefing note, "These vessels are single-hulled, which violates most international environmental standards." Therefore $2.6 billion (Canadian) needs to be spent building new supply vessels, here in Canadian shipyards.

$2.6 billion to replace Preserver and Protecteur is a lot of money. Think about it. Over a billion dollars a pop. And though we've perhaps become inured to military expenditures, this is just wrong on so many levels.

First off, this is not a new problem. We've known for years these vessels had a finite lifespan. You shouldn't wait the deadlines on until international protocols come into play to do something. And you shouldn't reveal a multi-billion dollar expenditure in the summer, when government is in recess.

(In fact, this very issue came up four years ago, at about the same time of the year. I wrote about it in a former blog, when the Canadian government thought the price tag would be $15 billion. You can read my earlier - and very similar - thoughts by clicking here.)

Secondly, as I've pointed out before, a billion dollars for a supply ship seems a bit extreme. Why so much? Because they're to be built in Canada from scratch. Bespoke naval vessels that will employ Canadian shipyard workers and bolster the economy.

Er...so why don't we build the planes for our air force, the tanks for our armoured corps or the submarines for our navy here in Canada? Because it's expensive. And others have done the expensive start up business, so it's often easier to buy "off the rack". (Our fighters and supply planes come from the USA, our main battle tanks from Germany and our subs from Britain.)

Here's an idea that will likely go nowhere beyond here: Instead of a political move to provide some shipbuilding jobs in a country which hasn't been a major shipbuilder for decades, why not bolster the maritime refurbishment industry - already doing okay - by purchasing a couple of vessels from an Asian shipyard and retrofitting them in Canada. The navy would get new vessels faster and the skills acquired in fitting them out could become known to our allies. And if someone brings up the "security" concern (that we must build these vessels in our own shipyards to avoid foreign eyes knowing what we're up to), well they've never seen how much a vessel can change in a re-fit.

Ah, but perhaps I'm thinking too much like Autumn. But there are lessons to be learned.