Maritime Piracy in East Africa

By Kraska, James; Wilson, Brian | Journal of International Affairs, Spring-Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Maritime Piracy in East Africa


Kraska, James, Wilson, Brian, Journal of International Affairs


More than 200 years ago, just as the United States was developing into a nation, corsair piracy challenged the ability of the country to conduct international trade throughout the Mediterranean Sea. While the Barbary threat was defeated, piracy continues to thrive and has become a feature of the contemporary age. Now, pirates operating off the Somali coast represent a destabilizing force in the region, and their attacks wreak havoc on world shipping markets at the very time the industry is suffering from economic collapse. Although piracy in the Horn of Africa has picked up throughout the past five years, 2008 was an especially remarkable year. In 2008, Somali pirates attacked more than one hundred vessels in the Gulf of Aden and western Indian Ocean. The audacity and scope of this piracy campaign is unprecedented in the modern age. Twenty thousand ships transit the Gulf of Aden annually and in 2007 about 6,500 tankers, carrying 12 percent of the world's daily oil supply, used the route. (1) This strategic area links trade between the east and west through the neighboring Strait of Bab el-Mandeb and into the Suez Canal. Piracy also occurs in Southeast Asia, off the African west coast and in the Caribbean, but the explosion in the number and scope of incidents in the Horn of Africa has galvanized world attention. Increasingly, Somali pirates seize and hold for ransom seafarers and valuable cargo. Among the take are thirty-three Russian armored tanks, 2 million barrels of crude oil valued at $100 million and tankers full of bulk chemicals. (2)

Piracy suppression includes collective efforts to deter and defeat the crime, from intercepting money transfers of ill-gotten ransoms to taking expeditionary military action in the coastal towns and villages located in the Puntland state of Somalia. On the operational end of the spectrum of efforts to repress piracy, a host of nations, including France, Denmark, Malaysia, India, Iran and Russia, have sent warships to the area. Combined Task Force 151, a multinational coalition that coordinates with the U.S. Navy's Fifth fleet, operates in the Horn of Africa to deter maritime terrorism and to promote the rule of law at sea. The European Union (EU) response includes deployment of naval vessels and surveillance planes to the area under Operation "Atalanta." Belgium, the UK, France, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden have all made contributions to this EU effort, with other nations also heeding the call. Japan is sending warships to the region, while China has already deployed two destroyers and a supply ship. However, the dramatic increase in the number and type of warships patrolling the Horn of Africa has been unsuccessful in stemming the threat of maritime piracy.

The seas are a unique legal milieu of flag, port and coastal state jurisdiction. Criminal offenses on the oceans frequently involve perpetrators, victims and wit nesses from multiple countries. Most of the oceans and airspace above the seas lie beyond any coastal state's jurisdiction, so cooperation with flag states-which typically exercise exclusive jurisdiction over their vessels at sea--is essential for effective action. This article focuses on the international laws and policies that connect the many nations, regional initiatives and international organizations in a common enterprise to repress maritime piracy. Developing workable legal and policy solutions provides the basis for collective action and can tie regional and global efforts into a more effective approach. (3) With such diverse and varied interests converging to address piracy, ensuring there is a unity of effort, effective communication, coordination and support for punishing perpetrators is critical. To successfully contain piracy, collective action should connect the efforts of private industry with those of governments and international organizations, and encompass political, military, financial and legal support. Collaborative confrontation of the problem of piracy in the Horn of Africa has begun to strengthen relationships among states in East Africa, and between them and maritime powers and shipping nations. …

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