The International Maritime Organization (IMO) yesterday launched its global initiative to “orchestrate the response” to piracy. As if to demonstrate the scale of the problem, news trickled in to the conference room – the IMO’s grandiose headquarters on London’s Albert Embankment – that a crew member of the Beluga Nomination, a German boat hijacked in January off the coast of the Seychelles, had been shot dead on Tuesday. His panicky captors had fired the deadly shot as another vessel made a rescue attempt.
The waters in the Horn of Africa – particularly off the coast of Somalia in the Gulf of Aden – continue to suffer almost daily incidents of piracy, kidnapping and ransom bargaining. And the world community is struggling to bring the situation under control.
Efthimios Mitropoulos, secretary-general of the IMO, attempted to give a sense of the dilemma during his opening speech. “In the past 12 months alone,” he said, “there have been 286 piracy-related incidents off the coast of Somalia. They have resulted in 67 hijacked ships, with 1,130 seafarers on board – whilst, at present, 714 seafarers are being held for ransom on board 30 ships.”
While the conference’s aim was to find solutions to global concerns, there was no doubt that one country in particular was being singled out – Somalia. And despite the rhetoric and the talk of international coordination through the promotion of a new six point agenda to tackle piracy, there was also recognition that more needed to be done. “We need to assess what is working, what is missing and what needs to be done and improved,” said UN director-general Ban Ki-moon, one of the speakers. “Although piracy manifests itself at sea, the roots of the problem are to be found ashore.”
Aside from the international business community’s need for navigable routes, Josette Sheeran, executive director of the World Food Programme, talked about the vital use of waterways to get food to the over two million people the WFP needs to reach on a daily basis. She pointed out the work of NATO, the UN and the EU in providing escort ships that have ensured no WFP vessel has been hijacked since the introduction of the system in 2007.
But the root of the problem continues to lie with Somalia – a failed state that lacks adequate police and coastguard infrastructure to survey its coastline and a broken legal system incapable of trying alleged pirates.
The Straits of Malacca and Singapore were once the most feared sea routes in the world, before being brought under control in the 1990s. If Somalia is helped to restructure – and it has to be from the inside – then the endemic piracy levels off the east coast of Africa could soon be a thing of the past as well.