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Somali Piracy - Causes and Consequences

The ongoing Somali piracy problem in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean raises a number of legal and military issues about how to deal with the problem. Dr. J. Peter Pham, director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, spoke to VOA about the causes and consequences of Somali piracy.

"Fundamentally, the piracy problem off the Somali coast arises out of the fundamental problem of statelessness on shore. There's not been an effective Somali government since 1991. So, without effective governing on shore you're going to have opportunities for criminals to engage in their enterprises with impunity," he says.

However, Pham says that's just one part of the problem. "The ransoms being paid by the shipping companies are also part of the problem. On one hand, from a purely economic point of view, it makes a great deal of sense if you have a cargo ship that is worth at least $20 to $30 million, it stands to reason that paying them a million dollars to get it back is an economically rational decision. Unfortunately, what might be in the selfish, self-interest of a single shipping company contributes to a general climate where the price of ransoms are bid up and there's incentive for more people to get involved in this lawlessness," he says.

A third component to the problem is the military response. Many nations, including the United States, have sent ships to the Gulf of Aden to protect shipping lanes.

Pham says, "Although the military response has focused attention on the piracy issue, perversely, it's made the problem more complicated. The military escorts…have certainly greatly ameliorated the piracy challenge in the Gulf of Aden…. On the other hand, as a result of that, the pirates have adapted and now switched their operations to the Somali basin in the western part of the Indian Ocean. And unfortunately, there you have a far larger area and it's impossible with the military and naval resources on hand to fully patrol that area. That's why when the Maersk Alabama was taken the nearest vessel, the USS Bainbridge, was several hundred miles away."

In a sense, there's a historical link between the USS Bainbridge and the Maersk Alabama incident. "There's a great irony in the fact that the vessel, the USS Bainbridge, the destroyer on site, is the one it is. Commodore William Bainbridge was actually the hero of the two Barbary wars, along with Stephen Decatur. And something tells me that he's probably rolling in his grave at the thought that a US destroyer has four pirates on a dingy without fuel and we're going into the second day of this without any resolute action," he says.

Asked if he sees a distinction between piracy and terrorism, he says, "I would argue…that piracy actually is…the original terrorism, the original crime against humanity because it's a crime ultimately against civilization. For centuries, international law actually described pirates as…enemies of the human race because they, in essence, rebelled against the international system and peaceful commerce. And certainly in the age in which we live today, the disruptive effect of even the small number of successful pirate hijackings is staggering."

He says history shows that a military response can be successful, such as actions taken by the United States and other nations against pirates along the northern African coast in the two Barbary wars.

"That, for 200 years, has been a deterrent factor. No US merchant ship has been successfully hijacked by pirates," he says. He adds, however, "This time around, if the pirates get away with having hijacked, even unsuccessfully, a US flag cargo ship, it sends a very strong signal of perhaps a lack of will, especially in the case of Somalia where we know where the pirates are. We even know where the leaders literally live because they've built huge mansions that were put up in the last 18 months because of the piracy ransoms and revenues they gained," he says.

He says four UN Security Council resolutions and agreements with the interim Somali government allow the use of force. "If we don't root out these nests of piracy or at least send a very strong signal, we will end up telegraphing is a very strong signal of weakness," he says.

Pham says that any military strikes against Somali pirates can be very selective, such as destroying the pirate mother ships that launch speedboats or destroying the mansions built by the pirate leaders. He says before the mansions are destroyed, a warning should be issued telling occupants to leave, as Israel does in the Gaza Strip.