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Pirates of the Aden Gulf

Somali pirates are a symptom of a needy failed state

By Pierpaolo Barbieri, None

The Western media’s focus on piracy off the Somali coast in the last few months has been light in tone since piracy ceased to be a serious problem in the Atlantic centuries ago. In the popular imagination, “pirates” remind us of either illegal copies of movies made in some lost developing country or the extremely successful Disney franchise Pirates of the Caribbean.

Some gravity, however, is called for: This year alone, pirates with land bases in Somalia have attacked over 100 ships off the coast of Africa. Most notably, they have held a Saudi tanker with over 100 million dollars in oil and a Ukrainian ship full of Soviet-era tanks (the destination of which remains unknown). According to CNN, as of December 5, almost 300 crew in 14 vessels adrift at sea remained hostage to Somali pirates. Clearly, these guys are not your regular Hollywood folk.

In the coming days, the Bush administration will propose a resolution in the United Nations (UN) that would allow foreign forces to follow pirates into mainland Africa and fight them in the coastal towns where they hide between their seaborne adventures. Although some countries are reluctant to support an initiative that would redefine the Law of the Sea, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice is expected to present a draft to the Security Council early next week. Moreover, the European Union (EU) is pulling together a joint maritime effort to attack pirates on sea. For the EU, this represents an unprecedented move toward joint military efforts–the navies of Germany, Britain, France, and four other member countries are expected to participate in what has been dubbed Operation Atalanta.

The motivations for the U.S. and the EU are clear. Pirates off Somalia disrupt a key trade route that has linked the Mediterranean with the Indian Ocean for centuries. In this era of globalization, many trading corporations have pressured their respective governments to take action. The gulf also contains a very profitable tourist route for high-end cruises. On Tuesday, the 246 passengers aboard the cruise ship MS Columbus, owned by the German firm Hapag-Lloyd, were flown to Dubai in order to avoid the danger zone. The secretary-general of the German tourist federation, Hans-Gustav Koch, claimed that in order to cope with the pirates, “We want escorts.”

Both the U.S.’s diplomatic initiative at the UN and the EU’s military efforts will improve the security for transnational movements in the area. But that is not enough. The developed world must act to address not only the security concerns in the region, but also–and perhaps more importantly–the root of the problem: Somalia itself. The country fits squarely in the category of a failed state: It has no stable government with monopoly over the use of force, it is plagued with warlords struggling for supremacy, and it is fighting a bloody civil war in which neighbors Eritrea and Ethiopia have gotten involved. It is not surprising, then, that amidst poverty, famine, and disease, Somalis have decided to go after the rich ships visible from their shores. In that sense, seaborne piracy is the visible face of the lack of opportunities on shore.

Coming to that realization, however, is the easy part. Somalia remains a painful symbol of the difficulties of humanitarian missions. According to the official history by U.S. Army Chief of Military History Brigadier General John Brown, “no such [humanitarian] operation has proven as costly or shocking, however, as that undertaken in Somalia from August 1992 to March 1994.” Although American troops had been greeted as liberators at first, “Operation RESTORE HOPE” turned sour very rapidly after local warlords, fearing loss of power, began targeting the foreign troops under anti-imperialistic slogans. When the public back home saw the footage of American corpses being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, the Clinton administration decided to back off. But while there were no more body-bags coming back to America, problems for Somalia and its people have persisted and worsened. And that is something the Western nations must address, even if it involves the domestically unpopular decision to commit troops on the ground.

It is hard to deny the connection between past and present troubles in a place like Somalia. After all, the country has been plagued with war, famine, and poverty for generations. But as the West decides to target the pirates that disrupt trade and tourism, it is imperative to address the root causes of piracy. The U.S. and the EU must move beyond the ghost of “Operation RESTORE HOPE” and get involved in stabilizing and pacifying the country–namely by forcing the warring factions into a compromise and, eventually, the formation of a government. Only with a stable government and a working economy in Somalia can we expect piracy to become as foreign in the Gulf of Aden as it now seems in the Atlantic Ocean.



Pierpaolo Barbieri ’09, a former Crimson associate editorial chair, is a history concentrator in Eliot House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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