15 July 2012
It seems quiet in the Indian Ocean. That is to say, on the pirate side of life. Naval presence in the Gulf of Aden and strong monsoon winds in the Arabian Sea seem to withhold pirates from hunting for merchant ships and crews they want to hold for ransom.
The lack of "noise” can be misleading.
A few days ago I visited Admiral Yang, the Commander of the Chinese Task Force 113. He was rightly proud. Since the end of 2008, Chinese task forces have escorted over 4500 ships in some 450 convoys with a 100% track record. His convoys, like those of Russia, Japan, India and Korea, continue, and not without a reason.
Commodore Bekkering with Rear Admiral Yang (Photo courtesy: NATO Counter-Piracy Mission:
Operation Ocean Shield)
Along the coast of Somalia, seven ships with over 200 people are still held against their will. Most of them have been there for months, some even well over a year. Most of them are held in their own ship, others are held ashore, but always under horrible, often inhumane conditions.
Pirates are still active, holding people, negotiating for ransom, preparing for new attacks, sometimes fighting amongst themselves, adversely affecting local communities in their attempts to develop a normal livelihood, destabilising the region in the process.
This happens in a country that is struggling to get on its feet. With some hope coming out of the current UN-supported political process that should lead to a draft constitution and election of a parliament, a speaker and a president. A process that is difficult in itself, further complicated by the presence of terrorists, fundamentalist and organized crime. Where various organizations work on improvement of security, mostly in the south, but less so in the north, where most if not all of the pirates have settled.
That is why the task forces of NATO, EU and CMF continue to patrol the waters around the Horn of Africa, in open sea, but also along the coast. Observing the coast should provide early warning for pirates getting ready to go to sea. And consequently stop them before they can get anywhere close to becoming dangerous to shipping.
This is much more than fighting symptoms. Operating as we do enables us to stop the pirates early. If their business model starts to crumble pirates are caught, prosecuted, convicted and jailed, visible for the local population, the image of "high benefit and low risk” or even "Robin Hoods” is destroyed, deterring anyone who may entertain ideas to go into the piracy business.
If pirates no longer pose a threat to innocent fishermen and dhow-traders, the latter may return to sea in full strength, restarting a viable local and regional economy based on fish, dates and charcoal, amongst others. Such a local and regional economy is vital to create and sustain stability.
HNLMS Evertsen conducting a ‘Maritime Situational Awareness' patrol, a visit to a dhow or a skiff to share information. (Photo courtesy: NATO Counter-Piracy Mission: Operation Ocean Shield)
And by showing presence in the coastal waters, talking to the locals during visits of dhows and skiffs at sea, we can communicate the message of the international community. Perhaps giving hope to the local population. Helping them to choose for and stick to ways towards more stability and prosperity.
Four years ago I spent three months on an amphibious ship in the Gulf of Guinea. Our program consisted of training maritime professionals, assisting in improving maritime infrastructure, promoting the relevance of the maritime domain and reaching out to communities. There are many parallels with the situation in the Horn of Africa that are worth investigating, naturally with hurdles, but the potential for gains are clearly there. It would create access, connecting regions with the global village, opening them for trade and other relations. As such, the maritime counter piracy effort is not fighting symptoms, but setting the proper and much needed conditions.
In the mean time, the task forces at sea will continue to ensure safe passage for shipping through the waters around the Horn of Africa. Making sure that the positive trend in successful disruptions and failing attacks on ships continue. At the moment, we are being helped by the strong monsoon in the Somali Basin and the Arabian Sea, but also later on, when the monsoon dies down and the pirates choose to use the calm weather as an opportunity, we will be ready when they do so.