What to do about piracy?

Piracy has hit the headlines again. Almost every day a vessel is captured by Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa.

UNODC has been engaged in the process of formulating an adequate response to the challenge of piracy off the coast of Somalia over the past few months. The main focus has been on strengthening the judicial response in countries of the region so that suspected pirates can be brought to trial.

UNODC is gearing up its support to States of the region, including by providing assistance to prosecution services, carrying out specialized training for police and maritime authorities and providing support to witnesses and in trial procedures and prison management.

An editorial on piracy and what to do about it by UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa was published in Lloyd's List on 5 February 2009.

Here is the full text of the editorial:

Piracy must be defeated in courts, ports and banks, not just at sea

Antonio Maria Costa

There is no let up to piracy attacks around the Horn of Africa. Last year, off the coast of Somalia, bandits from one of the world's poorest countries attacked more than 100 ships from some of the richest. One out of three attacks was successful: twice the total for 2007 and four times 2006. How can the number of attacks be cut in 2009?

Somali pirates are in it for the money, not for ideology. They are armed robbers and hostage takers seeking ransom. On average, they make 1 million dollars per heist: so, in 2008 they collected around $30 million -- three times the budget of the region of Puntland from where many of the attacks originate. In towns up and down the Somali coast, ransom money is buying houses, cars, power, bimbos and recognition: pirates are folk heroes.

Piracy has become big business. A few years ago pirates attacked fishing trawlers just off the coast. Now they take on oil tankers and cargos with military equipment far out at sea.

Profits are ploughed back into satellite phones, GPS technology, weapons and fast outboard motors, or to bribe officials and port informers. Some revenue may be supporting local terrorist groups.

How can this be stopped?

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. That is 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 and create job alternatives to piracy and smuggling. The international community must help, and not only Governments and international organizations. Shipping and insurance companies have a vested interest in building peace in Somalia rather than just paying ransoms.

Strengthening maritime security is essential, to protect shipping in the Gulf of Aden and the delivery of humanitarian assistance to the Horn of Africa. Help is on the way from the European Union, the Russian Federation, the United States, China, India and others. A few more sunken or seized skiffs should create a deterrent.

But gunboats alone are insufficient. There is a legal vacuum that has to be filled. Captured pirates cannot be forced to walk the plank. Nor should they be dumped off the Somali coast and ordered to swim to shore (which has occurred).

How to enforce the law in such a lawless area? Ideally, suspects should be tried in the country where they come from or in the country that owns the seized ship. But the Somali criminal justice system is weak and countries like Liberia, Panama and the Marshall Islands - where many of the ships are registered - may not want to deal with crimes committed thousands of miles away. So, this is not promising.

A second option is for the suspects to be sent to stand trial in the countries whose ships captured them: most probably in a country of the European Union, in India or in the United States. This is also not likely: a recent decision by the European Court of Justice imposes a few hours maximum delay for a detained criminal to be handed over to the national judiciary. This is not an option for European Union vessels operating in the Indian Ocean. (For this very reason a Danish vessel recently got rid of some seized pirates off Somali shores.)

A third, and more realistic, option is for the pirates to be tried in the region, having been arrested by local policemen. This is doable. For example, subject to a special agreement, a law enforcement officer or detachment from Kenya could join a Dutch ship off the coast of Somalia as a shiprider, arrest the pirates in the name of Kenya and then have the ship take them to a Kenyan court for trial. Depending on the strength and capacity of the law enforcement detachment, they could even board vessels and begin criminal investigations at sea, including seizing evidence and interviewing under the same legal regime that will apply to any eventual trial. This practice has proven to be effective in the Caribbean against drug smugglers, fortified by intelligence, air surveillance and police cooperation.

Shipriders from countries like Djibouti, Kenya, Oman, the United Republic of Tanzania and Yemen could be deployed on international warships in the region and these States should be assisted in strengthening their capacity to bring the pirates to justice using all measures available in the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. Regional cooperation is therefore essential. A few years ago, piracy posed a major threat to the Strait of Malacca. By working together, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand managed to cut the number of attacks by more than half since 2004.

There is another way to catch the pirates: go after their treasure. Unlike the buccaneers of old, Somali mafias are not burying their booty in the sand. Some of the cash is distributed by hand or through the "hawala" system. Nevertheless, pirates most often work through intermediaries outside of Somalia, negotiating ransom money through financial centres: these need to be hit.

In short, while pirates may be elusive, they have vulnerabilities that should be exploited. Although piracy has not changed a great deal since the days of the Caribbean or the Barbary Coast pirates, law enforcement can now count on multilateral cooperation, international laws and superior communication technologies. Let's defeat these bandits in the courts, the ports and the banks, as well as on the high seas.

The author is Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.