As Somali piracy falls, questions over what to do with captured pirates

The UN Security Council on Monday voted to continue policing measures off the coast of Somalia that have seen a notable decrease in attacks by pirates, unanimously renewing authorizations for international action against the gunmen.

With resolution 2125 (2013), the Council stressed “the need for a comprehensive response to repress piracy and tackle its underlying causes by the international community”, while acknowledging that the primary responsibility to stop the crime rested with the fragile Somali government.

The resolution recognized that international efforts appear to be paying off, with a decline in piracy rates and the capture of more criminals. This, however, means that there is increasing need to bolster the judicial systems and capabilities of Somalia and neighboring countries that currently accept large numbers of suspected pirates.

The Council agreed to continue to consider the creation of specialized anti-piracy courts, first proposed in a resolution passed in 2011.

Piracy rates declining in Somalia

Data shows that piracy off of the Horn of Africa is at its lowest point since 2006. So far this year, only 11 incidents have been reported off the coast of Somalia, including two hijackings - a small fraction of the global number, which stands at 206 reported incidents, including 11 hijackings. Compared to a few years ago, where in April 2009 alone pirates hijacked 16 ships, this indicates significant progress.

A report on transnational crime in East Africa, released by the UN Office for Drugs and Crime in September, argues that four factors have contributed to the waning rates of piracy: declining public support, increased risks for pirates, protracted ransom negotiations and increased aggressiveness in international enforcement.

Because high-value ships now sail much farther from the coast, pirates must travel much farther to reach them, both increasing their risk and reducing public support for their activities. While the average distance for an attack in 2005 was 109km away from the coast, by last year this figure had risen almost sevenfold to 746km.

Public support for piracy increased as local fisherman discovered, toward the mid-1990s, that foreign trawlers were fishing in Somali waters, often illegally, leading to a decline in stocks. Claims that the waters were being used as a dumping site for waste also increased animosity towards foreign ships, according to the UNODC report.

“The pirates cannot operate without considerable public support, because they are reliant on supplies from the mainland during the long ransom-negotiation process,” the report observed. “But the justification wears thin when ships are attacked thousands of miles from the Somali coast, or when the victims are pensioners sailing pleasure craft near the Seychelles.”

Drawn-out ransom periods and greater international efforts have also hampered their ability and desire to operate in the region. In 2005, hostages spent 38 days in captive on average, but by 2010 it had increased to 152 days. The longer time needed to host hostages means that investors see a return on their investment much later, if ever, and the pirates are often left with very little profit.

“For a variety of reasons, piracy has lost much of its attraction. A rising number of would-be pirates never make a profit or never return. As international attention has intensified, it has become more difficult for pirates to operate openly,” the authors wrote. “While maritime hijackings for ransom are on the rise in other parts of the world, there is hope they will fade in Eastern Africa.”

Captured pirates held around the world

But better tracking and capturing systems have led to the capture of more pirates on the high seas and around the Somali coastline. UNODC estimated in March that there are around 1,200 piracy prisoners being held in 21 countries around the world.

This has presented unique challenges for prosecution, with countries doling out drastically different punishments depending on their national legal frameworks.

In the Netherlands, in 2010, five Somali men found guilty of piracy were sentenced to just five years in jail. After they serve their jail time, they are to be returned to Somalia, although it is unlikely that this will happen because the Netherlands is prohibited from deporting people to countries deemed too dangerous.

By contrast, in Yemen in the same year, six Somali pirates were sentenced to death, found guilty of killing two members of the crew of an oil tanker they hijacked. In the US, five Somali men were convicted in 2010 and sentenced to life imprisonment for piracy after they attacked the USS Nicholas.

Other suspected or convicted Somali pirates are being held in countries around the globe, including India, Italy, Malaysia and Spain. Just last month, notorious Somali pirate leader Mohammed Abdi Hassan, known as “Big Mouth”, was arrested in Belgium.

UNODC, under its counter piracy program, is now supporting piracy prosecutions in Kenya, Mauritius, the Seychelles and Somalia, in a bid to try to improve fair-trial and justice mechanisms for those caught.

In Hargeisa, Somaliland, they have constructed a correctional facility to house 380 inmates, and are in the process of building a 500-bed jail in Garowe, Puntland. The hope is that this will enable more suspected pirates to be transferred to Somalia to face trial.

Yet to date, only 59 people have ever been transferred. It is therefore vital to build the capacity of judicial mechanisms in nearby states, too, many of which are already overburdened, according to UNODC.

Kenya’s Shimo la Tewa prison in Mombasa holds the bulk of the 130 convicted or suspected pirates being held in the country. Ninety pirates are being held there, but moving the suspects between the prison and the courthouse to face trial proved difficult, due to security concerns and communication issues.

To alleviate these issues, UNODC built a new courtroom adjacent to the prison, called Shanzu Court, which is capable of trying pirates caught in the waters of Somalia and other high-risk cases. Between July and November 2012, the court heard 764 cases.

While these improvements represent a positive step towards ensuring adequate justice in piracy cases, until countries are able to transfer large numbers of suspected pirates back to Somalia to face trial, there will continue to be discrepancies in sentencing, depending on national laws. To equip Somalia with the capacity to handle pirate cases, broader focus on creating rule of law and greater development are needed.

“The ongoing instability in Somalia contributes to the problem of piracy and armed robbery at sea off the coast of Somalia,” the Security Council resolution pointed out. It stressed the need for “long-term and sustainable efforts to repress piracy and the need to create adequate economic opportunities for the citizens of Somalia.”

aps/rz