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Pirates: An Excellent Start

12 April 2009

Pirates: An Excellent Start

By Gwynne Dyer

The United States Navy has more than half the major warships in the world, and there is a pirate threat off the Somali coast. Now that the US Navy has killed three of those pirates in order to free Richard Phillips, the kidnapped captain of an American ship, these two facts are coming together in a promising way.

Just to utter that phrase — “a pirate threat off the Somali coast”– is to plumb the depths of absurdity. What combination of incompetence and cowardice could have allowed piracy to become a threat to a major shipping route in the early 21st century? What are all those warships with their guns and missiles and radars and helicopters actually for?

To be fair, a couple of other countries have authorised their navies to use force against the Somali pirates: India did it once, and France has just done it for the third time. The French also go in shooting even when hostages are at risk, and this time one of them died. As President Sarkozy’s spokesperson said: “France has a consistent policy to oppose all acts of piracy and make sure its citizens are never brought ashore as hostages.”

But neither France nor India have enough ships to control what we are regularly told is “a million square miles of ocean” (3.4 million sq.km.) However, that is a deliberate exaggeration, designed to suggest that the job is not being done because it is undo-able. The relevant area is really about 400,000 square miles (1.3 million sq. km.), which is quite a large tract of ocean but certainly not too big for the US Navy.

So the abortive Somali attack on the US-registered ship Maersk Alabama last week may have a silver lining. It may get the US Navy to take over the job of fighting the pirates.

The biggest problem other navies have faced in dealing with the pirates is the pitiful state of current international law. The old rules on piracy were simple: pirates were the “enemies of all mankind,” and there was a right of “universal jurisdiction” against them. Any country could arrest pirates from anywhere, regardless of nationality, and try them for their crimes. If they were captured in battle, they were even liable to summary execution.

The new rules, as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, require a warship to send a boarding party led by an officer onto any suspected pirate vessel to confirm its criminal intent.

Until that has been done, the warship may not open fire. It is unlikely that the lawyers consulted with practical seamen before they wrote this clause.

But the United States has not ratified the Law of the Sea convention. This was not foresight, just the Senate’s customary reluctance to ratify any treaty that limits US freedom of action in any way, but it is useful in this case. Normally, the US government acts as if it were bound by international treaties that it has signed even when the Senate is being obstinate, but it doesn’t actually have to.

So the US Navy, perhaps acting in cooperation with the French and Indian navies and anybody else who has a bit of backbone, could be deployed to deal with the pirates. For a start, they could declare an exclusion zone beginning 12 nautical miles (20 km) off the Somali coast that can only be traversed by vessels that have been cleared by US naval authorities. All legitimate commercial ships and pleasure-craft would be waved through automatically; all other vessels in the zone would be sunk without warning.

There would still be a need for warships scattered throughout the zone to deal with pirates that slipped across the 12-mile line, but this sort of exclusion zone would allow most of the naval forces to concentrate on containing them within Somalia’s territorial waters.

Would enforcing the exclusion zone mean that some of the pirates get killed? Yes, of course, but there was a reason why pirates were defined as “enemies of all mankind.” The sea is an alien environment, a place where people die very quickly if things go wrong. Those who prey on other people in this environment have very little call on our sympathy.

Would the dead also include a few Somali fishermen who enter the exclusion zone by accident or in desperation? Probably. You try to avoid it, but some innocent people almost always die when you use military force.

So let the fishermen put pressure on the local warlords to end their collusion with the pirates. It is not everybody else’s duty to put up with piracy so that Somalis can go on fishing.

The world has consistently failed Somalia for almost two decades while it has languished in violent anarchy. The United States bears a special responsibility, because it was behind the 2007 Ethiopian invasion that destroyed the country’s best chance of stabilising itself since the collapse in 1991. But letting the piracy continue doesn’t help Somalia in any way, so the US Navy might as well get on with the job of suppressing it.

Is this actually going to happen? It could, and it should, but it remains to be seen if it will.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“To be fair…Navy”)

Ethiopia, America and Somalia

16 December 2008

Ethiopia, America and Somalia: Staggering Stupidity

 By Gwynne Dyer

Statesmen ought to have a special prize just for themselves, like fools have the Darwin Awards. The Darwin Awards commemorate very stupid people who did a service to human evolution by accidentally removing themselves from the gene pool. The statesman’s equivalent could be called something like the Cheney-Zenawi Award.

I mention this because the shining stupidity of the US Vice-President and the Ethiopian Prime Minister are on special display this week, as the Ethiopian army prepares to withdraw from Somalia two years after its foredoomed invasion, leaving the country in the hands of precisely the people whom they wanted to eliminate. We need negative role models too, and you couldn’t ask for worse than this pair.

I can’t actually prove that getting Ethiopia to invade Somalia was Dick Cheney’s brainchild, but it smells exactly like a Dick Cheney idea: crude, violent, and barking up entirely the wrong tree. Just like invading Iraq, in fact.

As for Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, he had already distinguished himself by becoming obsessed with the stupidest border war in modern African history. It wasn’t his fault to start with: Ethiopia was attacked out of the blue in 1998 by the insanely aggressive regime in Eritrea, but Ethiopian troops drove the Eritreans back. By the ceasefire in mid-2000, Ethiopia had recovered all the ground it lost at the start.

An international commission found Eritrea guilty of aggression, and another one arbitrated all the disputed stretches of border, granting Ethiopia most of its claims. Both sides said they would accept the rulings and then Zenawi walked away from the deal. He has been getting ready for another war with Eritrea ever since.

Going to war with Eritrea again would mean defying the United Nations ruling, so Zenawi needed the backing of some great power that could protect him from the UN’s censure. Who better than the United States, which has assiduously ignored and belittled the UN under the Bush administration?

Now what could Ethiopia do for the Bush administration in return?

Well, it could invade Somalia. Washington didn’t want to put American troops into Somalia again, having had its nose bloodied in 1993, but it did want to overthrow the civilian regime that was restoring peace in southern Somalia and put its favourite warlord in power instead. Ethiopian troops would do the job just as well.

I think I can see the self-satisfied smirk on Cheney’s face as he closed the deal: another triumph for the subtle master of geopolitics. I can’t make out the look on Zenawi’s face, but maybe he was smiling too. Too clever by half, as the saying goes.

The job was to overthrow the Union of Islamic Courts, a mass movement funded by local merchants in Mogadishu who wanted to end the constant robberies and kidnaps that made life impossible in the Somali capital. The UIC mobilised the desire of ordinary Somalis for an end to the violence that had ravaged the country for fifteen years, and the peace they brought to Mogadishu soon spread over most of southern Somalia.

Unfortunately the courts were “Islamic” and they wanted to enforce sharia law, which in Washington’s book made them practically terrorists. They did have a few unsavoury allies, notably an extremist militia called al-Shebab, but they gave people in Mogadishu their first real hope of security and justice. They should not have been destroyed.

The Ethiopian army invaded Somalia in December 2006, drove the Islamic Courts out of Mogadishu, and installed Abdullahi Yusuf, the president of the “Transitional Federal Government” (TFG) of Somalia, in power. Well, not exactly in power, since the citizens and militias of Mogadishu immediately began attacking the hated Ethiopians, who only controlled whatever was in their gunsights. As for Abdullahi Yusuf, he only controlled a suite of rooms and some telephones.

He was originally chosen as president of the TFG, with ample US support, at a conclave of Somali warlords dignified with the name of “parliament” in Kenya in 2004. He would never have made it back to Mogadishu without the help of the Ethiopian army, and accepting that help made him deeply suspect in the eyes of most Somalis.

The resistance has driven the Ethiopian army out of most of southern Somalia in the past two years, and now the Ethiopians are going home. Abdullahi Yusuf will have to leave too, since he has no supporters except the Ethiopians and the Americans. Which will leave Mogadishu in the hands not of the Union of Islamic Courts, alas, but rather of the extremist militias that have pushed the UIC aside during their struggle against the foreign troops.

It’s almost as perverse as the Bush administration’s decision to eliminate Iran’s two great enemies in the Gulf, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Ethiopia and the United States have not only plunged Somalia needlessly back into war. They have made it possible for the nastiest, craziest extremists, people who think it is their duty to kill other Muslims with “un-Islamic” haircuts, to take power in Mogadishu.

The world needs a Cheney-Zenawi Award for Gross Political Stupidity, and I know who the first nominees should be.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 14. (“I think…goes”; and “It’s almost…Mogadishu”)

Pirates of the Horn

21 November 2008

Pirates of the Horn

 By Gwynne Dyer

On one side are the eight navies, the world’s largest shipping companies, the rich Gulf states that need to get their oil to market, and the great powers, whose commerce depends heavily on the shipping lanes around the Horn of Africa. On the other side are a few thousand Somali pirates in small boats with light weapons. So why are the pirates winning?

Not only are they winning, but the forces of law and order are almost completely paralysed. The pirates have seized dozen of ships, extracting ransoms that total about $30 million this year alone. Fourteen ships, including a Saudi Arabian super-tanker carrying two million barrels of oil, are still anchored off the Somali coast awaiting ransom.

Yet with the honourable exception of the Indians and the French, nobody has used force against the pirates of the Horn. The Danish navy arrested ten of them in September, but turned them loose again because the government believed that it did not have jurisdiction to prosecute them.

The British Foreign Office has advised the Royal Navy not to detain pirates of certain nationalities (including Somali) as they might claim asylum in Britain under human rights laws.

As the boldness of the pirate attacks increases, the international response is to retreat. Major shipping companies that transport oil out of the Gulf have ordered their tankers to stop using the Suez Canal route, which takes them past the northern Somali coast. Instead, they are going all the way around southern Africa, adding two weeks to the voyage at a cost of $20,000-30,000 a day.

What to do? Most pundits declare that this problem cannot be solved at sea. Instead, it will only end when order has been restored in Somalia, the pirates’s base. Since Somalia is currently divided between three different governments, only one of which (Somaliland) exercises even a modest degree of control over its territory, that seems a tall order.

The last major international attempt to take Somalia out of the hands of the warlords and their militias was in 1992-93. It ended with the hasty retreat of American troops from the country, followed by all the United Nations forces as well. If a call for volunteers to repeat that effort were to be sent out to UN member states today, an epidemic of diplomatic deafness would sweep the world.

If we must wait for a central government with real authority to take charge in Somalia before the pirate threat in the seas around the Horn of Africa is brought under control, that happy event is unlikely to arrive before the 2020s. Why not solve the problem at sea, where clan militias and suicide bombers are not a problem? Why not just capture or kill enough of the pirates to persuade the others to choose a different career?

Do not believe the nonsense about how it’s too big an ocean area to monitor and control effectively. This is one of the tasks that great-power navies are designed to perform, and they have the right equipment to do it:

satellite surveillance, maritime patrol aircraft, and warships with powerful radars and lethal weapons. Moreover, the navies are usually looking for work, since there is not that much call for their services in peacetime.

The problem is not the reluctance or incompetence of the navies. It is the whole body of international law and human rights legislation that has emerged in recent decades, which has made the traditional remedies for piracy very hard to apply. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, for example, requires a warship to send a boarding party led by an officer onto any suspected pirate vessel to confirm its criminal intent. Until that has been done, the warship may not open fire.

The colloquial term for the members of any such boarding party is “hostages”. Back in the early 18th century, when the pirates of the Caribbean — the REAL pirates of the Caribbean, not Johnny Depp and Keith Richards — were finally being eliminated by the navies of the major European powers, there was no such foolishness. Pirates were defined as “enemies of all mankind,” and there was a right of “universal jurisdiction”

against them.

Any country could arrest pirates from any other country or countries and try them for their crimes. If they were captured in battle, they were even liable to summary execution. And while it is not the 18th century any more, a UN Security Council resolution decreeing universal jurisdiction would certainly transform the situation.

Suppose that such a declaration were made, and it was then announced that any non-military vessels carrying armed men within 500 kilometres (300 miles) of the Somali coast would be subject to arrest. If they did not submit when challenged, they would be sunk without further discussion. Do that a couple of times (as the Indian warship INS Tabar did last week), and the pirate threat drops away very fast.

Has the UN got the spine to declare those rules for the Gulf of Aden and the oceans bordering East Africa? Perhaps. It has just given the Indian navy the right of “hot pursuit” of suspected pirate vessels into Somali territorial waters, but it needs to go a good deal further. This thing can be stopped, with very little loss of life, if we just change the rules of engagement.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 6. (“As the boldness…day”; and “The last…world”)

Occupied Somalia

22 December 2007

Occupied Somalia

By Gwynne Dyer

It is exactly a year since Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, fell to Ethiopian troops (28 December), and the occupation has been one of the most brutal on record. The resistance started at once, and Ethiopian counter-insurgency tactics are not gentle.

As early as last April Germany’s ambassador to Somalia, Walter Lindner, wrote a public letter condemning the indiscriminate use of air strikes and heavy artillery in densely populated parts of Mogadishu, the systematic rape of women, and even the bombing of hospitals. By now, the Ethiopian army’s attempts to terrorise the residents of Mogadishu into submission have driven 600,000 of them — 60 percent of the population — to flee the city.

The Ethiopians and their local allies indignantly deny these figures, but they come from the United Nations aid coordinator for Somalia, Eric Laroche, and the makeshift camps along the roads leading away from Mogadishu are there for all to see. It is, says Laroche, the worst humanitarian crisis in Africa, worse even than Darfur. But “since it is in Somalia, no one cares.”

You will notice that some of the phrases used above do not appear in the agency reports about Somalia. The wire services do not talk about an Ethiopian occupation of Somalia, and they refer to the local Somali collaborators as the “transitional federal government” (TFG). This is mainly in deference to the United States, which organised and backed the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia.

The curse of Somalia is the clan system. It is the main point of reference for most Somalis, and it really became a crippling burden when long-ruling dictator Mohammed Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991. In the pre-independence days and the early years afterwards, the clans were able to unite against their Italian and British colonial rulers, but in 1991 they had to create a new government without an external enemy. They couldn’t do it.

As the clans fought it out in the streets, the whole infrastructure of an organised state collapsed. By 1992 American and United Nations forces arrived to help the millions of famine-stricken refugees, but they were only drawn into the inter-clan fighting as well, and by 1994 they had all withdrawn, leaving Somalia to anarchy and civil war for the next decade. But in fact most of the country was fairly stable under the control of one clan or another, with only the Mogadishu area still a battleground between rival clan warlords.

This did not greatly inconvenience the United States, which developed a keen interest in the politics of the region after the atrocities of 9/11. At first the US just made deals with the various warlords to ensure that no jihadi fanatics created a base there. But it got more upset when an organisation called the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) chased drove all the warlords out of Mogadishu in 2006 and gave the capital its first taste of peace and good government since 1991.

The UIC was actually created by prominent merchants from the locally dominant Hawiye clan who wanted a safe environment in which to do business. The “Islamic” aspect of it was mainly there to provide a rallying point that other clans could identify with, though that obviously also attracted a certain number of earnest and bearded young men. Some of them, unfortunately, favoured a rhetorical style that triggers a knee-jerk reaction in jittery post-9/11 Americans.

The people of Mogadishu, enjoying their first taste of normality in fifteen years, overwhelmingly supported the UIC, but the United States decided it must be overthrown. To do the job, Washington turned to its close ally Ethiopia, Somalia’s perennial enemy. The Ethiopians, who have no interest in a stable and strong Somalia, were happy to oblige — and for diplomatic cover, the US could use the “transitional federal government” of Somalia.

The TFG had been created in Kenya in 2004 under UN auspices. Each of the major clans (Hawiye, Darod, Dir and Rahanweyn) appointed 61 members to a “parliament” while all the minor clans shared 31 members between them. The “parliament” then chose a president, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed. It was the fourteenth attempt since the overthrow of Siad Barre to create a Somali government.

The TFG set up in the town of Baidoa in early 2006, and promptly went to war with the Union of Islamic Courts that controlled the capital. Since it had only about 5,000 soldiers of its own, the TFG depended from the start on far larger numbers of Ethiopian troops to do the actual fighting. Large numbers of government members resigned as it became clear that the TFG had fallen into the hands of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Ethiopians, but a force of about 20,000 Ethiopian troops (with some US air support) fought its way into Mogadishu a year ago.

With the occupation of Mogadishu, the interval of peace ended, and the past year’s fighting has driven more than half the city’s population into flight. The TFG has been permanently discredited by its link to the hated Ethiopians, but it will probably take more years of war to end the occupation, and a lot more Somalis will die. All because they called it the Union of Islamic Courts.

If only they had called it the Union of Buddhist Courts. Or Protestant Courts. Anything but the “I” word.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 10. (“The Ethiopians…cares”‘ and “The TFG…government”