'Ship riders': tackling Somali pirates at sea

20 January 2009 - As a result of the growing piracy threat, UNODC has proposed a number of measures to deter, arrest and prosecute pirates in the Horn of Africa to the United Nations Security Council in December 2008.  The most immediate of these is to put forward international agreements allowing law enforcement agents from the Horn of Africa region to join warships as a 'ship riders' - as these are known - to circumvent legal impediments to arresting pirates on shared waters.

Traditionally used to combat drug trafficking and illegal fishing, shiprider agreements are designed to remove policing barriers in international maritime boundaries, and to stop smugglers and other criminals from taking advantage of shared territorial waters for illegal activities. The practice has been employed successfully in the Caribbean to fight drug traffickers.

This proposal - endorsed by the Security Council in a resolution passed in December 2008 - is an immediate response to the growing threat of piracy in the Horn of Africa. Somalia, in particular, has developed into a breeding ground, with almost 100 attacks on vessels by Somali pirates reported in 2008 alone. The disintegration of the government has resulted in the total breakdown of the justice system, and there is little hope that the country can establish a functioning system of administrative justice in the near future.

"Ideally, suspects should be tried in the country where they came from, or in the country that owns the seized ship", says UNODC's Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa, "but the Somali criminal justice system has collapsed, and countries like Liberia, Panama and the Marshall Islands - where many of the ships are registered - do not want to deal with crimes committed thousands of miles away".

Shiprider agreements would make use of existing functional criminal justice systems in the region to be able to arrest and try pirates.  "We must engage neighbouring States - where legal instruments deriving from current international agreements on piracy and transnational organized crime are in place and functioning - if pirates are to be brought to justice." Subject to a special agreement, a shiprider arrangement would allow a law enforcement officer from, from example, Djibouti, Kenya, Tanzania or Yemen, to join a warship off the Somali coast, arrest the pirate in the name of their country and have them sent to their national court for trial.

Although shiprider agreements offer remedial action to tackle pirates at sea, they are not a permanent, long-term solution to the problem in the Horn of Africa. This would require greater and sustained investment in strengthening the capacity of regional criminal justice systems in the affected countries to be able to effectively investigate and prosecute piracy cases.  The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC), of which UNODC is the guardian, offers powerful provisions on international cooperation to fight most cases of piracy and its accompanying crimes, and UNODC can help States strengthen their legal systems to address this crime in the long term.

Recently, an international Contact Group on Somali Piracy was formed. At a meeting in New York, the Contact Group established four working groups to tackle different piracy-related issues. Working Group 1 will address activities related to military and operational coordination and information sharing and the establishment of the regional coordination centre, and will be convened by the UK with the support of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO). Denmark will convene Working Group 2 to address judicial aspects of piracy with the support of UNODC. The US will convene Working Group 3 to strengthen shipping self-awareness and other capabilities, with the support of IMO, and Egypt will convene Working Group 4 to improve diplomatic efforts on all aspects of piracy.