How Best to Battle Somali Pirates?

The twenty-five scholars, diplomats, lawyers, military officers, shipping industry officials, and other experts on maritime piracy and Somalia from nine nations who convened at the Harvard Kennedy School in December 2009 under the auspices of the

World Peace Foundation as the Cambridge Coalition to Combat Piracy proposed that Somali piracy could be contained and then defeated if the United Nations (UN), concerned world powers, and African nations combined with ocean carriers, ship owners, and other industry leaders to mount a concerted, three-pronged approach to reduce the scourge of Somali sea-faring piracy.[2] This approach would have to include measures to deter pirates on land as well as at sea, and would necessarily need to employ carrots as well as sticks. Since piracy is but an income-generating industry, not a way of life, incentives can wean pirates away from their dangerous pursuits. Those incentives need to be matched with both stepped-up patrols and ship-borne measures that make successful hijackings less likely and more costly.


The Cambridge Coalition to Combat Piracy, having carefully considered measures of prevention as well as protection, and having reviewed relevant legal concerns, issues the following thirty-eight recommendations to reduce and, in time, eliminate Somali-based maritime piracy:

I. Discouraging the Pirates on Land

Every expert agrees that the scourge of maritime piracy can best be reduced by turning today’s Somali-based pirates into law-abiding, productive citizens on land. Piracy can be deterred at sea (see below), but reducing individual and group incentives to turn to piracy for income and adventure—for livelihoods and self-respect—will only prove successful when more rewarding alternatives exist on land and/or a sufficiently strong local governing force shuts pirate bases and ancillary support operations. The main pirate syndicates that operate out of Puntland and northern Somalia cannot function exclusively at sea; they need to bring their captured ships back to home bases and to involve far-ranging logistical and analogous operations in support of their hostages. They also require home bases from which to conduct the internationally extensive ransom negotiations that are at the very heart of the piratical enterprise. Either directly or indirectly, each act of piracy from the Somali region is carried out with the implicit, if not the explicit, cooperation of local power-brokers on land. Those power-brokers may be clan-based warlords or may even extend to the leaders of the unrecognized government of the semi-autonomous Puntland region. Whichever, at the beginning of 2010, no Somali governance entity has attempted seriously to curtail pirate activities. Rather, they have benefited individually and collectively from this most important (if not the main) source of economic growth along the otherwise desperate Somali coast.

Somali in power justify piracy, and rationalize support for piratical activities, because of illegal foreign fishing and alleged toxic dumping. Whether or not those claims are correct, they are believed locally and a prominent narrative of victimhood is widely accepted. Integral to the campaign to combat Somali piracy, therefore, is the first of the many Cambridge Coalition recommendations:

1 – The international community should create an ad hoc international/Somali body under the UN Security Council to ascertain the truth and falsity of toxic dumping allegations and to investigate reports of illegal fishing. This new body should report conclusively within six months to the UN Security Council, providing a point of departure for assessing how the international community can aid Somalia in enforcing lawful fisheries and environmental measures in its 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone.[3]

2 – The UN Security Council should also authorize the international naval vessels of the combined task forces to intervene at sea to prevent trawlers from fishing illegally in Somali waters and/or to capture toxic dumpers and prosecute them. The first few trawlers and others captured, confiscated, and fined would create a powerful demonstration effect and increase the credibility of counter-piracy initiatives.

3 – While the UN special report is being prepared, the international community that piracy most affects should challenge the narrative of victimhood through an extensive public awareness and public relations campaign that emphasizes the social, economic, and political costs to the Somali people of continued piracy.

4 – Local clan elders and clerics should be mobilized to support the counter-narrative. The counter-narrative should also be broadcast locally and Somali, to the extent feasible, should direct the campaign explaining why piracy is against the interests of most Somali and all of Somalia.

5 – The UN, working with the International Contact Group on Somalia and the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia, should commit to reestablishing Somalia’s fishing industry in Puntland and northern Somalia.

No public relations and community awareness campaign alone will do much to reduce piracy. Rather, world order must, together with those Somali leaders who oppose piracy, develop a set of incentives to attract pirates and those who support the pirates logistically back to the land—away from sea-going depredations. Those incentives must include the creation of gainful employment opportunities as attractive to and as rewarding for ordinary pirates as their current (hazardous) occupations at sea.

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