About the Author: Dr. Jun Bando is the Maritime Security Coordinator and U.S. Africa Command Liaison for the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of African Affairs.
I’m about to step into one of many meetings this week that will address the issue of piracy in waters off the coast of Somalia.
Piracy off the coast of Somalia has recently seized the international community’s attention, and for good reason: the explosion in Somali-based piracy has implications for international trade, the safety of mariners, the survival of millions of people dependent on international food aid, and the stabilization of one of the world’s most fragile countries, Somalia.
Piracy has plagued waters off the coast of Somalia for many years, but the number of pirate attacks in the region has escalated since late 2006. Pirate attacks doubled from 2007 to 2008; more than 60 attacks have been recorded this year in waters off the Somali coast. Pirates have also recently expanded their geographic reach from southern Somalia to the Gulf of Aden, north of Somalia. Recent attacks have been concentrated in the Gulf of Aden, an important leg of a shipping route that connects the Middle East and Asia to Europe and North America.
Large ransoms and low risks of arrest and punishment have fueled the current escalation in piracy. Up to $30 million have been paid in ransom for vessels hijacked off the coast of Somalia, including the Gulf of Aden, this year. Ransom payments finance arms purchases that not only allow pirates to undertake more aggressive hijacking operations but also fuel conflict in Somalia, threatening the recent agreement in Djibouti that we hope will bring stability to southern Somalia.
Piracy also threatens to sever the major pipeline for humanitarian assistance to southern and northeastern Somalia by halting United Nations World Food Program (WFP) food deliveries. The Horn of Africa, which includes Somalia, Ethiopia, and Djibouti, is facing its most severe food crisis since the 1980s. Shippers contracted by WFP refuse to deliver assistance to Mogadishu and other ports in southern Somalia unless accompanied by armed naval escorts.
The escalation in piracy has also raised economic and environmental concerns. Insurance costs in the Gulf of Aden have risen 10-fold in a year. The shipping industry has considered rerouting around South Africa, which could affect the cost of goods. A sufficiently damaging attack on an oil tanker in the Gulf of Aden could result in an environmental disaster.
At the State Department, we’re working very hard to encourage international efforts among governments and industry to fight piracy and to implement UN Security Council Resolutions 1816 and 1838, which provide a framework for international cooperation against piracy off the coast of Somalia. The State Department also coordinates U.S. involvement in resolving individual piracy cases, which typically involves working with a number of other countries affected by an incident of piracy. Our efforts are part of our broad effort to support peace and stability in Somalia, which we hope will also bring about a longer-term solution to piracy in the Horn of Africa.