Dealing with Somali Pirates: Lessons from the Strait of Malacca

Arthur Herman published an impassioned article in the New York Post last week offering a three-pronged solution to tackle Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden: make piracy a capital offense, arm the crews of merchant and passenger ships sailing in the region, and sweep out the Somali bases on land.

Although we agree at some level with all three suggestions, we also have doubts about the implementation and feasibility of these steps. It is hard to employ capital punishment (or any other form of punishment, for that matter) without a court system; arming merchant ships might provoke a more brutal response from pirates; and sweeping out the pirates' bases is difficult given the political and civil unrest in Somalia and other neighboring countries like Yemen, Kenya, and Djibouti. Therefore, we think it is useful to consider other areas that effectively fight piracy for potential lessons and alternatives to tackle the issue in the Gulf of Aden.

The Strait of Malacca between Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore offers some interesting solutions. The "formula" in the Strait of Malacca, as outlined by Lt. Commander Jamiola of the U.S. Navy, consists of state-sponsored naval forces, regional intelligence sharing, surface surveillance radars, an effective court system, and fighting the origins of piracy on land. It has proved extremely successful, with the number of pirate attacks in the region declining each year since 2003.

Despite this success, it would be foolhardy to expect the Malaccan formula to work in the Gulf of Aden region without the appropriate tweaks to account for the political instability in Somalia. This is a much larger challenge, as outlinedin extensive analysis on Somalia by AEI's Critical Threats team. Therefore, it is imperative that foreign forces fill the void until countries in the Gulf of Aden region attain stable governments that are willing and able to control their own waters.

Given the lack of indigenous naval and coast guard forces for counter-piracy operations, foreign forces must continue the duties of maritime patrol around Somalia's coast. Unfortunately, pirate attacks have continued despite the presence of warships of more than a dozen countries. This means that in the short term, at least, the number of warships will have to be increased to tackle the escalating problem. Similarly, intelligence sharing and surveillance radars are virtually nonexistent among the indigenous states and will have to be provided by foreign navies.

The next crucial step in employing the Malaccan formula is establishing a court system to prosecute pirates. This is critical given the sorry state of affairs that currently exists--for example, in April 2009, Dutch NATO forces rescued hostages from pirates, but then released the pirates because no policy existed within NATO framework to hold them. It is clear that a single set of rules of engagement, probably through UN Security Council resolutions, must be put in place so captured pirates can be punished appropriately. In his New York Post article, Herman also proposes arming merchant ships, but we fear this would only lead to more bloodshed. Having armed guards on board might be acceptable as a short-term solution, given the current fear among sailors, but is not ideal for the long term. Instead, slightly altering shipping routes to avoid the pirates, even if it costs more fuel and money and takes more time, might be more prudent while some of the steps outlined above are implemented.

Fighting the origins of piracy on land, as Herman notes, is the final step. This is also probably the most important step because the solution to eradicating piracy remains on the shore. "Blow[ing] up pirate bases," as Herman puts it, will have to be part of the answer. However, it is also important for the global community to simultaneously focus on helping Somalia and its neighbors achieve economic and political stability. The region's ability to police its own waters can come only after governments in the region have stabilized, are capable of managing militaries, and are able to fight piracy--like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore can--instead of battling insurgents and warlords. The international community can provide short-term assistance, but regional government stabilization is the only long-term solution for removing the menace of Somali pirates.

Rohan Poojara is a research assistant at AEI.

Photo Credit: U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jason R. Zalasky

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