Wednesday, 8 April 2009

If we want to end the piracy, we must end the injustice that catalysed it

Somali pirates have, in recent days, attacked and seized six vessels in the Indian Ocean, in open defiance of the European nion's maritime security presence there. The latest vessel, the US-operated Maersk Alabama, according to BBC News, "came under a sustained attack from pirates" which is "thought to have involved up to three pirate skiffs at any one time," resulting in "the first time a vessel with an all-American crew has been seized by the Somali pirates."

Naturally, the situation has caused considerable consternation, with "analysts" concerned by "a new strategy by Somali pirates operating far from the warships patrolling the Gulf of Aden," MSNBC tells us. Reuters adds that "many of the pirates are based in northern Somalia's semi-autonomous Puntland region, where the authorities called on Wednesday for more funds to tackle the gangs onshore," with the comment from Puntland's security minister, Abdullahi Said Samatar, that "it's better for the international community to give us $1 million to clear out the pirates on the ground, instead of paying millions of dollars to keep the warships at sea."

In fact, however, the problem is not of "gangs onshore" or pirates at sea, but the political and economic conditions that brought about this situation. And it is a situation in which European firms are complicit. In October last year, Al Jazeera reported an accusation by Somali pirates that "European and Asian companies are dumping toxic waste, including nuclear waste, off the Somali coastline," confirmed by UN envoy for Somalia Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah. This affirms the events of 2004 when that year's Tsunami "washed up rusting containers of toxic waste on the shores of Puntland." A report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) highlights the full extent of the problems this has caused;
Nick Nuttall of the U.N. Environment Program in Nairobi explains that as the wave receded, residents living along Somalia's northern coast noticed dozens of rusting steel drums, barrels, and other containers deposited on their beaches.

Smashed open by the force of the wave, Mr. Nuttal says the containers exposed a frightening activity that has been going on for more than a decade.

"Somalia has been used as a dumping ground for hazardous waste starting about the early 1990s and continuing through the civil war there,” he noted. “European companies found it to be very cheap to get rid of waste there, costing as little as $2.50 a ton where disposal costs in Europe are something like $250 a ton. And the waste is many different kinds. There is uranium radioactive waste. There is leads. There is heavy metals like cadmium and mercury. There is industrial waste and there is hospital wastes, chemical wastes. You name it," said Mr. Nuttal.

Since the containers came ashore, hundreds of local people have fallen ill, suffering from mouth and abdominal bleeding, skin infections, and other ailments.
The pirates quoted in the Al Jazeera report, at the time holding a Ukranian ship to ransom for $1 million, insisted that they are "reacting to the toxic waste that has been continually dumped on the shores of our country for nearly 20 years" because "the Somali coastline has been destroyed, and we believe this money is nothing compared to the devastation that we have seen on the seas."

But this is not all. At the same time, multinational corporations have leapt upon the "curious competitive advantage" afforded by the lack of government, particularly the telecoms industry. A 2005 article for The Economist hailed the fact that there is "no state telecoms company to worry about, no corrupt ministry officials to pay off (there is no ministry), and the freedom to choose the best-value equipment"and the awesome gains to be made from this. "Even with price wars," we are told, "profits are high." This, of course, is what matters. Though it is "armed oligarchy, capable of taking anything it wants at the point of a gun" it still "looks like a free-market nirvana after The Economist's heart," human rights and living conditions be damned.

Added to this, The African Executive informs us that whilst "the world’s attention is currently focused on the Somali sea lanes" and piracy, "more damaging economically, environmentally and security-wise is the massive illegal foreign fishing piracy that has been poaching and destroying Somali marine resources for the last 18 years following the collapse of the Somali regime in 1991." This is one of the problems that the pirates have emerged in response to. Yet, "with its usual double standards when such matters concern Africa, the “international community” comes out in force to condemn and declare war against the Somali fishermen pirates while discreetly protecting the numerous Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing fleets from Europe, Arabia and the Far East."

Johann Hari, writing upon this same situation for The Independent back in January, compared the present situation to the time of "traditional" pirates;
In the "golden age of piracy" – from 1650 to 1730 – the idea of the pirate as the senseless, savage Bluebeard that lingers today was created by the British government in a great propaganda heave. Many ordinary people believed it was false: pirates were often saved from the gallows by supportive crowds. Why? What did they see that we can't? In his book Villains Of All Nations, the historian Marcus Rediker pores through the evidence.

If you became a merchant or navy sailor then – plucked from the docks of London's East End, young and hungry – you ended up in a floating wooden Hell. You worked all hours on a cramped, half-starved ship, and if you slacked off, the all-powerful captain would whip you with the Cat O' Nine Tails. If you slacked often, you could be thrown overboard. And at the end of months or years of this, you were often cheated of your wages.

Pirates were the first people to rebel against this world. They mutinied – and created a different way of working on the seas. Once they had a ship, the pirates elected their captains, and made all their decisions collectively, without torture. They shared their bounty out in what Rediker calls "one of the most egalitarian plans for the disposition of resources to be found anywhere in the eighteenth century".

They even took in escaped African slaves and lived with them as equals. The pirates showed "quite clearly – and subversively – that ships did not have to be run in the brutal and oppressive ways of the merchant service and the Royal Navy." This is why they were romantic heroes, despite being unproductive thieves.
There is no reason to doubt that there are pirates out there who are the vicious opportunists they are made out to be by Western governments and the press. But the evidence is clear that a significant majority are taking matters into their own hands and responding to a gross injustice that those now coming out against the pirates were keen to ignore.

If we want to end this problem, then, we must be prepared to address head-on the crimes that have made pirates the people of Somalia. We cannot hope to achieve anything by coming out in force to eradicate them from the high seas.