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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”)

The Ghosts of Srebrenica

19 June 2008

The Ghosts of Srebrenica

By Gwynne Dyer

Last week in The Hague, a Dutch court began hearing a case brought by surviving relatives of the 8,000 Bosnian Muslim civilians, supposedly under UN military protection, who were murdered by Serb forces at Srebrenica in 1995. The survivors are claiming $4 billion in damages from the Dutch state and the United Nations, which had created the “safe haven” at Srebrenica and sent the Dutch troops there to protect it. It’s about time.

Everybody knows that the survivors are not going to end up with $4 billion from the UN, the Dutch or anybody else, nor would it bring their fathers, husbands and sons back to life if they did. But at the least it may force the Dutch to come to terms with the behaviour of their troops at Srebrenica, and it would be nice if the victims got an apology and some compensation.

Good people make mistakes, and innocent people die; it happens all the time, especially in war. But Srebrenica was the worst mass killing in Europe since the Second World War, and it probably could have been avoided if the Dutch troops had shown a little more courage. If not, then they could have died fighting to stop it, because that was their duty.

Soldiers talk with understandable pride about the “unlimited liability” of their profession: the same phrase appears in many armies in many languages. Few other callings require that on some occasions you must die in order to do your duty, and the military profession is quite right in claiming that this sets soldiers apart. But you can’t just talk the talk. You have to walk the walk, and the Dutch didn’t.

The Dutch soldiers were sent to Srebrenica in 1995 to relieve the Canadian battalion that had been holding the UN-protected enclave. I happened to be in Canada at the time, so a Dutch television crew came looking for me for advice on what their soldiers could expect in Srebrenica. I told them that the Canadians were very glad to be getting out, because it was potentially a death-trap.

I didn’t mean a death-trap for the tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslim civilians who were trapped there; that was obvious. I meant a death-trap for the few hundred lightly armed Canadian soldiers who were protecting the Muslim civilians from the thousands of Serbs with artillery and tanks who surrounded the enclave.

If the Serbs attacked, the Canadians would have to fight despite the odds — anything else would be a shameful betrayal of their duty — and they might lose dozens of people. They would probably save the enclave in the process, because even the Serbian commander, General Ratko Mladic, would stop short of killing hundreds of UN troops. But it was a dreadful situation, and the Canadians were greatly relieved to be going home. Good luck to the Dutch.

The Dutch were unlucky. In July, 1995 the Serbs began to make probing attacks on the enclave’s perimeter, which was much too long to defend with only 400 Dutch troops.

The Dutch commander, Col. Ton Karremans, was in a difficult position, but his course was clear: protest loudly to Mladic and to the world, and call in NATO air strikes if the Serbian attacks continued. Meanwhile, give the Muslim men within the enclave back the weapons they had surrendered to the UN, and prepare to fall back to the town of Srebrenica, which could probably be held for a day or so — time enough for help to arrive, perhaps. But if the Serbs kept coming, some Dutch soldiers would die.

So Karremans went to see Mladic, drank a toast with him, and agreed to hand over the Muslims in return for thirty Dutch soldiers who had been taken hostage. The Dutch commander didn’t know that the Serbs were planning to exterminate all the men and boys in Srebrenica; the Serbs themselves only decided on that after meeting with Karremans and realising that they faced no opposition. But this was three years into the war, and he must have known that at the very least many hundreds of Muslims would be tortured, raped and murdered.

So the Dutch troops came home safely. In 1999 the UN admitted that it had failed to protect the Muslims of Srebrenica from mass murder, but said that none of its officials could be held responsible and invoked its legal immunity. In 2002 an official Dutch report blamed the Dutch government and senior military officials for the massacre, and prime minister Wim Kok’s entire cabinet (which had been in power in 1995) resigned.

But in 2006 the Dutch government awarded those who had served in Srebrenica with a special insignia “in recognition for their behaviour in difficult circumstances.” They still don’t get it. Even if all the higher authorities had failed them, the soldiers’ duty was clear, and they didn’t do it.

I have talked to Canadian soldiers who served in Srebrenica before them, and they wonder if they would have behaved any better when the Serbs attacked. But at least they know that they should have. Real soldiers are old-fashioned people who still believe in honour, and that is the most attractive thing about them.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 11.(“Everybody…compensation”; and “So…resigned”)

Abkhazia: Russian Bluff

21 March 2008

Abkhazia: Russian Bluff

By Gwynne Dyer

Last month Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia, and most of the NATO countries recognised it. Russia condemned this as an illegal and dangerous precedent, and hinted that it might recognise other breakaway states like Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But early next month Russian President Vladimir Putin will show up at the NATO summit in Bucharest, in one of his last official acts before passing power to the president-elect, Dmitri Medvedev. He will not have recognised Abkhazia or South Ossetia. He was only bluffing.

It sounded serious at first. Early this month, Russia ended the trade restrictions it placed on Abkhazia and South Ossetia when they declared their independence from Georgia in the early 1990s. Moscow is very angry about the way that NATO and the European Union have dismantled Serbia without permission from the United Nations, and it wanted to make a point.

Georgia accused Russia of “an undisguised attempt to infringe the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia, to encourage separatism,” but all Moscow actually did was to ease the rules on trade between the two would-be countries and Russia. It did not officially recognise them as independent states, and it never will.

The back-story is that when the Soviet Union replaced the Russian empire in 1917, its new Communist rulers rationalised the patchwork quilt of smaller nationalities they inherited in the Caucasus and Central Asia into “republics” that formally respected the principle of national self-determination. But they never actually became independent, of course, and Moscow didn’t want to have to deal with dozens of them directly.

So the republics were ranked in three tiers, with fifteen “Union republics” (including Russia itself) as the top tier. The lower tiers, having been granted “autonomy”, were bundled into one or another of the Union republics, with Russia getting the lion’s share of them. Georgia got several of them, including Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 it expected to keep them. However, the locals had other ideas.

By then massive immigration into Abkhazia, a subtropical area on the Black Sea coast, had reduced the Abkhaz ethnic group to only one-fifth of the population. Over half the 550,000 people living in Abkhazia in 1991 were Georgians. But in two years of vicious fighting an Abkhaz militia, backed by volunteers from other parts of the north Caucasus (and perhaps also secretly by Russia), drove out the Georgian army and most of the Georgian civilians as well.

It was unapologetic ethnic cleansing, conducted by a tiny nationality (less than 100,000 people) who feared that they were disappearing under an avalanche of immigrant foreigners. Now two-thirds of the previous residents of Abkhazia have fled, including all but a few tens of thousands of Georgians, and the Abkhaz are a large majority of the remaining population. But nobody recognises the independence of their heavily armed little state.

Russia does not like the current Georgian government, which talks about joining NATO and the European Union. But Moscow has not recognised Abkhazia’s independence (or South Ossetia’s) because that would be a precedent that could be used by ethnic minorities in other “autonomous republics” in Russia itself. And there is a bigger problem, too.

What horrifies the Russians about many recent actions of the United States and some its European allies — the war against Serbia in 1999, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the creation of an independent Kosovo in 2008 — is that they are deliberately tearing up the United Nations Charter, the rules that the victorious powers drew up at the end of the Second World War in the hope of avoiding further great-power wars.

Attacking the UN is often popular in the United States. Republican presidential candidate John McCain now talks about a League of Democracies that would effectively bypass the UN (and would presumably authorise its members to invade anybody who needed a lesson). President George W. Bush acts as though such a vigilante outfit already exists.

The Russians, who lost forty million killed in the last world war, think that this is a very bad idea. They are right. If the great powers were ever to go to war again, the nuclear weapons would come out and hundreds of millions would die.

The United Nations’ core rules are that no country can attack another, and that the whole international community will defend and preserve the existing borders of every UN member. These rules creates much injustice, especially when oppressed minorities are seeking independence from intolerant majorities, but they are probably necessary. They have certainly been useful: no great power has fought another directly since 1945.

Kosovo was legally part of Serbia, even if most of its people didn’t want anything to do with Serbia. Giving it independence without Serbia’s assent and in defiance of the UN rules suits the Western great powers for the moment, but it undermines those essential UN rules that were invented to bring some order to international affairs.

If Russia one day recognises Abkhazia’s independence without Georgian consent and Security Council approval, it will mean that Moscow has finally lost its faith in international law and accepted that the world has reverted to jungle. For the moment it’s just bluffing, but to no avail. The historically challenged dwarves who currently run foreign policy in Washington, London, Paris and Berlin don’t even understand what really troubles the Russians.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 10 and 11. (“It was…state”; and “Attacking…die”)

Kosovo: The Least Bad Option?

4 February 2008

Kosovo: The Least Bad Option?

 By Gwynne Dyer

The Serbian presidential election on Sunday was a near-run thing, but in the end the good guy won. Not that President Boris Tadic is all that wonderful, but he positively glows with virtue in contrast to his opponent Tomislav Nikolic, an ultra-nationalist who served as a government minister under strongman Slobodan Milosevic and has been accused of war crimes during the Serbian occupation of eastern Croatia in the 1990s. Tadic ended up with 50.5 percent of the votes to Nikolic’s 47.7 percent.

This means that the elaborately choreographed diplomatic dance to give Kosovo its independence can go ahead without unleashing a Balkan war, for Tadic, while he opposes Kosovo’s independence as much as any other Serb, has promised not to use force to stop it. The European Union took the first step in the dance the day after the Serbian election, announcing that an EU “peace and justice mission” made up of 1,800 European police and legal officials will take the place of the existing United Nations mission in Kosovo.

A good many of these officials are already in Kosovo wearing UN hats, but they have to change headgear because what’s about to happen in Kosovo is illegal under UN rules. Although more than 90 percent of Kosovo’s 2 million people are Albanian-speaking Muslims (Kosovars), the province has legally been part of Serbia since 1912. Even if the Russians were not there to veto Kosovo’s independence, the UN Security Council has no authority to dismantle a sovereign state.

So it is being done outside the UN rules. Indeed, almost everything in Kosovo in the past decade has been done outside UN rules, including the 78-day NATO bombing campaign against Serbia in 1998-99 that forced Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw the Serbian army from the province. There was strong humanitarian justification, for Milosevic was applying the same brutal ethnic cleansing tactics to the Kosovars that he had previously used against the Croatians and the Muslims of Bosnia, but the NATO campaign was illegal under international law.

The subsequent military occupation of Kosovo by 16,000 NATO troops (who are still there) got some legal cover when Russia supported a Security Council resolution setting up KFOR, as the force is now known. But Moscow never envisaged Kosovo as an independent country — and to be fair, neither did the NATO countries at the start.

NATO’s brief air war against Serbia nine years ago was not really a calculated thing. It was a final, exasperated lashing out against the demonic Milosevic, who had been sponsoring bloody campaigns of ethnic cleansing against various non-Serbian peoples of former Yugoslavia for almost a decade.

But the big NATO countries that drove the policy (if you can call it that) had no clear idea what they would do with Kosovo afterwards. That left the field clear for the Kosovars themselves, who almost unanimously wanted independence from the hated Serbs.

The NATO powers were mindful of the need to protect the Serbian minority (about 5 percent of the population) that still remains in Kosovo, but basically they accepted the US and British position that the occupation could only be ended by granting Kosovo independence. If that means the partition of the sovereign nation of Serbia, so be it.

George W. Bush and Tony Blair didn’t much care about international law and the authority of the UN, or else they wouldn’t have invaded Iraq. It all seemed quite straightforward to them. But this policy did cause anxiety among NATO members like Cyprus and Spain, where the notion that aggrieved ethnic groups with a local majority can simply dismantle long-established states — and get international support for the enterprise — set off all the local alarm bells. It did the same in Russia, which has plenty of aggrieved minorities of its own.

Once the Kosovars had open Western support for full independence, they had no incentive whatever to make compromises with the Serbs, so two years of UN-backed negotiations on some halfway-house deal that would save Serbian face failed conclusively late last year. Russian opposition made a UN resolution authorising Kosovo’s independence impossible.

So the UN mission in Kosovo is being turned into an EU mission, and in a week or two Kosovo will unilaterally declare its independence (with promises of security for the Serb minority, of course). The big EU countries will all recognise Kosovo’s independence at once. The Serbs and the Russians can complain all they want, but they won’t do anything. And that’s the end of the story, apart from the collateral damage to international law and the West’s relationship with Moscow.

The Serbs and Russians probably won’t do anything. Tadic’s narrow re-election victory was helped along by EU promises of more aid for Serbia, visa-free travel in Europe for Serbian citizens, and the prospect of eventual EU membership, and he won’t resort to force. The Russians will be furious, but they have no means of stopping it. It’s a shabby, shady business, but at this point it may be the least bad solution to an insoluble problem.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9. (“NATO’s…decade”; and “George…own”)