Over the past week, the news has been peppered with reports of ships of all different countries of origin and a diverse range of cargo being hijacked off the coast of Somalia by bands of pirates. While that may conjure up the image of an eyeliner-sporting Johnny Depp and a recognizable Hans Zimmer score, the Somali pirates have become a serious threat to the safety of ships and crews en route from Asia to Europe and North America via the Suez Canal. Although President Obama has vowed to combat the piracy and is considering shipping envoys accompanied by naval gunships for protection or using the navy to locate and attack the pirate “mother ships,” this only serves to address the symptom of a much larger issue that is going almost entirely ignored by the rest of the world.
Most pirates, both historically and currently, are in the business for plunder and profit. There is no doubt that the Somali pirates have made profits, raking in an estimated $150 million last year alone. The pirates, however, say their actions are not motivated by material gains. The pirates say that their actions are a direct reaction to the exploitation of unprotected Somali waters after the government’s virtual collapse following the civil war during the 1990s. Foreign fishing vessels regularly fish clandestinely for yellowfin tuna off the Somali coasts, and many countries have seen fit to dump toxic chemicals and waste into Somali waters. With secessionist sentiments rampant in many of the nations that comprise Somalia, more authority is wielded by local officials and tribal leaders than by the internationally recognized central government, leaving it as powerless to bring an end to pirate attacks as it is to stop international abuses of Somali waters.
The internal political situation and the role of many of the “victimized” countries in creating the current situation in Somalia seems, however, to have escaped the notice of those who are currently attempting to “fix” the problem, including the United States. Naval actions and private guards on commercial shipping vessels may protect the interests of the countries and companies whose ships are the focus of the attacks — some of which are illegally in Somali waters. But these actions do absolutely nothing to address the actual issues: resentment over international abuses, a broken and dysfunctional government and tribal desires for secession. If nothing else, the United States’ defense of the countries that have long been exploiting Somalia’s weakness will create even more resentment and make the pirates even more determined to continue their actions — in reaction to a joint U.S.-French rescue mission on Friday that left five of their own dead, the pirates captured two ships today and took a total of 60 hostages.
The international community, and specifically the United States, needs to look beyond its own commercial interests and recognize that combating the symptom of the problem is not a viable long-term solution. They need to acknowledge the validity of the pirates’ concerns and work with Somalia to establish control of its waters and surrounding countries to prevent further abuses as opposed to fighting fire with fire and augmenting the severity of the situation.