Fighting piracy on land and at sea

Testimony to the United States House of Representatives

Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on

International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight

Washington, 14 May 2009

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Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Rohrbacher, and Members of the Committee.

Piracy continues unabated off the Horn of Africa - there have been 80 reported attacks already this year.

Pirates are moving up the value added ladder. A few years ago they attacked fishing trawlers just off the coast. Now they take on oil tankers and container ships far out at sea. Ransom money is buying property, luxury goods, and power. Profits are also being used to buy satellite phones, GPSs, more powerful weapons and faster boats, or to bribe officials and collaborators. In a country wracked by poverty and instability, the profits of piracy are spreading corruption, perverting local economies, and empowering warlords and criminal groups.

This poses a major threat to Somalia's Transitional Federal Government, the stability of the region, and the commercial and security interests of UN Member States. What can be done to stop piracy off the Horn of Africa?

First, prevention is crucial. Some may say that the problem is as big as Somalia itself: until there is law and order on land, there will be anarchy off the coast. True enough, although a priority in restoring order in Somalia should be to dismantle the pirates' coastal bases and their support networks, in exchange for development aid to improve local administration, strengthen integrity, create job alternatives to piracy and smuggling, and restore much needed social services and infrastructure. Funds pledged at the recent donors conference for Somalia in Brussels are a good start. In dispersing these funds, particular attention should be paid to parts of the country where basic institutions are already in place, like Puntland and Somaliland.

Second, strengthening maritime security is essential to protect shipping in the Gulf of Aden and the delivery of humanitarian assistance to the Horn of Africa. An unprecedented armada from the United States, Russia, China, the EU, NATO, and a number of other countries is now patrolling some of the world's most strategically significant waterways.

Greater engagement from regional states should be a medium term goal. A few years ago, piracy posed a major threat to the Malacca Straits. By working together, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand have cut the number of attacks by more than half since 2004. While countries around the Horn of Africa lack comparable maritime security capacity, they could at least cooperate more closely by sharing intelligence to fight all forms of illicit activity - like trafficking of people, weapons and drugs as well as terrorism and money laundering.

Third, law enforcement. Several United Nations instruments address the problem of piracy [1]. Experts - and ship captains - have been navigating their way through these Conventions to figure out what to do with piracy suspects. What are the options?

  • Ideally, suspects should be tried in the country where they came from. But the Somali criminal justice system is weak. Somalia is not a party to most relevant international treaties and lacks any modern domestic legislation directly applicable to piracy.
  • Flag states could prosecute the pirates. But in many cases, ships in the region fly flags of convenience of countries like Liberia, Panama and the Marshall Islands. Or home ports are thousands of miles away. Suspects and evidence would have to be flown long distances, which could be logistically challenging - although your government has done this in the case of the alleged hijacker of the US-flagged Maersk Alabama. Other countries have simply let suspects go.
  • Another option is to have a bilateral agreement with a country in the region, as the United States and the European Union have with Kenya, for example. Such agreements define procedures for the detention, transfer and prosecution of captured pirate suspects.
  • My Office has proposed the use of ship riders and law enforcement detachments. Subject to a special agreement, a law enforcement officer from Kenya (say) could join an international ship off the coast of Somalia as a shiprider, arrest the pirates in the name of Kenya, and then bring the suspects to a Kenyan court for trial. A law enforcement detachment could even board vessels and begin criminal investigations at sea under the same legal regime that will apply to any eventual trial. Such agreements also facilitate entry into the territorial waters of the ship rider's state, and strengthen the sense of buy-in among the countries concerned. The US, the UK and the Netherlands have used ship riders and law enforcement detachments to great effect against drug smugglers in the Caribbean.

We are exploring these and other options in the Working Group on Legal Issues which is part of the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia.

There are currently more than 60 piracy suspects awaiting trial in Kenyan jails and more than two dozen in the Seychelles. This number will no doubt continue to grow. UNODC - pursuant to Security Council resolution 1851 (2009) and as part of a joint programme with the European Commission - to support the trial and related treatment of piracy suspects. This includes training prosecutors, locating and producing witnesses, facilitating international legal cooperation (for example for collecting evidence), funding defence lawyers for pirates, and bringing prison conditions up to international standards. This will ensure that pirates are tried fairly and justly, while sending a strong signal to others that they can not operate with impunity. It will also strengthen capacity to fight other types of organized crime and terrorism.

At the moment, the main focus is on Kenya, but we intend to expand the programme to other countries of the region, and to share information and good practices. Donor support is welcome.

The fourth and final point is money. Somali pirates are in it for the money, not for ideology. Thus far, ransom money has been hard to track because much of it is circulating within the cash-based economy of Somalia. Just look at the real estate boom in some coastal towns.

But as the pirates become more successful, they will be more tempted to move their money offshore, using the hawala system and third parties, particularly in financial centres where shipping companies are located. Let's be clear. The scruffy teenagers that you see with hooks and ladders are just the foot soldiers in this operation. Behind them are criminal groups (and their collaborators) that provide supplies, financing, and intelligence and can hide the proceeds of crime. More attention and resources must be devoted to tracking and seizing the pirates' treasure.

Thank you for your attention. I am available for your questions.