The face of a modern pirate, is usually the face of a young man of Somali origin, a criminal and opportunist whose activities harm international shipping. But in Somali perception piracy is considered differently. Here is the image of the rebellious poor Somali fisherman whose fishing grounds have been illegally poached and plundered by foreign fishing trawlers and whose environment has been used as dumping ground for toxic and hazardous substances.
Much of the international community’s attention is currently focused on the sea lanes in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. Piracy off the coast of Somalia has become a serious threat to international shipping and regional security since the second phase of the Somali Civil War in the early 21st century. For years, attempts have been made to address piracy through UN resolutions, but they all have failed largely because many Members States felt such resolutions would infringe greatly on their sovereignty and security and have therefore been unwilling to give up control and patrol of their own waters. UN resolutions 1814, 1816, 1838 and 1846 were then tailored to apply to Somalia only. As a failed State with no strong diplomatic representation at the United Nations, Somalia was not able to protect its sovereignty. Objections made by Somali civil society were ignored. As a result these resolutions authorize UN Member States to use all necessary means, including the use of military force, to prevent piracy, to protect ships from the World Food Programme as well as vulnerable ships navigating the shipping trade routes of the Gulf of Aden and off the Somali coast. Foreign powers initiated multi-national and unilateral anti-piracy efforts by deploying warships into the international waters of the Gulf of Aden and into Somali territorial and EEZ waters.
International and Somali Perceptions of Piracy
Nowadays, Somali pirates have become the new ‘scourge of the seas’. The face of a modern pirate, is usually the face of a young man of Somali origin, a criminal and opportunist whose activities harm international shipping. At least, that is the international perception. Certainly, most of today’s pirates are youngsters and come from different parts of Somalia. But in Somali perception piracy is considered differently. The closest Somali term for pirate is burcad badeed, which means ‘ocean robber’. The pirates themselves prefer to be called badaadinta badah or ‘saviours of the sea’, often translated as ‘coastguard’. Here, another picture of piracy emerges that hardly gets attention in Western countries, but circulates invariably in Somali local and regional press. That is the image of the rebellious poor Somali fisherman whose fishing grounds have been illegally poached and plundered by foreign fishing trawlers and whose environment has been used as dumping ground for toxic and hazardous substances. With no central government or UN resolution standing up for him, this fisherman or ‘pirate’ is forced to defend his own interests.
The Invasion of the Somali Seas: Foreign Illegal Fishing and Waste Dumping
As a result of the nutrient-rich water upwelling from the depths of the northern Indian Ocean, the coast of Somalia is recognized as one of the five richest fishing zones of the world. Previously relatively unexploited, it has been ravaged and poisoned during the last two decades. The collapse of the Siad Barre government in 1991 and the ensuing Somali civil war meant that there was no central government or institution left to protect Somalia’s coastal waters. With the disintegration of the Somali Navy and Police Coastguard services the abundant marine and fisheries resources provided a juicy target for foreign commercial fishing trawlers. Foreign vessels from Italy, France, Spain, Greece, Russia, Britain, Ukraine, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, India, Yemen, Egypt, with many of them flying flags of convenience to evade EU and other regulations, engaged in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU). According to the High Seas Task Force (HSTF) there were over 800 vessels in Somali waters at one time during 2005 because Somalia simply could not control its own waters and fishing grounds. These fishing vessels did not compensate local fisherman, nor did they pay taxes, or any royalties. Illegal or counterfeit licenses to fish were obtained from local warlords. They did not care about management, conservation, or environmental regulations which are norms that are associated with regulated fishing. In so, they put unsustainable pressure on fish stocks and hugely damaged the wider marine ecosystem.
As these foreign illegal vessels were taking advantage of the situation, another criminal activity came to light. Following the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004, allegations emerged that after the outbreak of the civil war in 1991, Somalia's long, remote shoreline was used as dumping site for the disposal of toxic and hazardous waste. The huge waves which battered northern Somalia after the tsunami are believed to have stirred up tonnes of nuclear and toxic waste, including nuclear material, that were illegally dumped in Somali waters by several fictitious European firms, often related to the Italian mafia. International organizations (UNEP, UNICEF) have reported unusual increase in respiratory infections, mouth ulcers and bleeding, abdominal hemorrhages and unusual skin infections among local inhabitants on the Indian Ocean coast, diseases consistent with radiation sickness. Meanwhile, thousands of tonnes of dead fish and other marine animals were washed ashore.
These pressing issues have generally not been reported in international media when reporting on Somali piracy. It has been argued that foreign illegal fishing and waste dumping are at the root cause of Somali piracy. In response to the inactivity of the international community, Somali fishermen formed themselves into bands of local ‘coast guards’ to ostensibly protect their livelihoods and marine resources. When asked for their motivation for their piratical acts, the answer often is ‘to stop illegal fishing and dumping in our waters’. They do not consider themselves sea bandits, but see piracy as a form of national defense of their country’s territorial waters: ‘It is not a piracy, it is self-defense’. However, as piracy has become substantially more lucrative in recent years, other reports have speculated that financial gain is now the primary motive for Somali pirates. Resolving the problem of piracy requires a multifaceted approach. Alongside deployment of naval forces, criminal prosecutions and the establishment of a viable Somali State, the international community has to take action to prevent foreign illegal fishing and toxic waste dumping to provide the Somali population with a sustainable and secure future.
- Diaz, L.M. and B.H. Dubner, “Foreign Fishing vs. Somalia Piracy: Does Wrong Equal Wrong?”, Barry Law Review, 14 (2010), pp. 73-96.
- Kinsey, Ch., “Private Security Fighting Pirates and Illegal Fishing in Puntland”, in C. Berube and P. Cullen (eds), Maritime Private Security: Market Responses to Piracy, Terrorism and Waterborne Security Risks in the 21st Century, London, Routledge, 2012, pp. 126-137.