International Counter Piracy Effort Confronts Criminals on the High Seas

Posted by David Foran
October 16, 2009
Counter Piracy Effort on High Seas

About the Author: Dave Foran is a Foreign Service Officer active in counterpiracy issues in the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs.

Piracy is a crime.  It raises the cost of bringing goods and humanitarian aid into East Africa.  While there are instances of piracy in many parts of the world, the majority of today’s pirate attacks are in the Gulf of Aden and Somali Basin, one of the world’s busiest seaways, crossed by more than 20,000 vessels a year.  It raises the cost of bringing goods and humanitarian aid into East Africa.  It endangers seafarers and fishermen trying to make a living.  This area is the focus of U.S. and international counter-piracy efforts.

People often ask me, “why not just take military action against the pirates’ coastal havens like Lieutenant Stephen Decatur did on the 19th Century Barbary Coast?”  It seems like the easy answer to some.  It’s not.  Pirates are intermingled in local communities.  The dramatic April 12 rescue of Maersk Alabama Captain Richard Phillips aside, striking pirates, even if we are sure they are pirates, risks harm to innocents.  As for targeting the “mother-ships” that service the pirates’ raiding skiffs at sea, these are generally pirated vessels that often have crew members as hostages.

The United States Government's role in this international partnership against piracy in the Horn of Africa is consistent with our traditional interest in ensuring freedom of navigation, safety of mariners, and protection of American citizens. The State Department works closely with its partners across the U.S. government, including the Department of Defense, the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration on our piracy policies.

The nice thing is that we don't have to fight alone.  The United States has joined 44 other countries in the international effort to fight piracy off of Somalia through the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia, along with eight international organizations (the African Union, the Arab League, the European Union, INTERPOL, the International Maritime Organization, NATO, the UN Secretariat, and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime), and two major maritime industry groups, BIMCO and INTERTANKO, who take part as observers.

Piracy is perhaps the most well-recognized universal crime under international law and most states have domestic laws criminalizing acts of piracy.  The Contact Group has successfully built on these basic elements to encourage international coordination among naval patrols, promote shipping self-protection measures, arrange for the prosecution of suspected pirates, and build the capacity of countries victimized by piracy to interdict and prosecute these maritime criminals.

There's more to do, but the Contact Group has already made significant progress.  It’s been less than a year since we formed the Contact Group, but we’ve have seen the success rate of pirate attacks go from upwards of 60 percent in 2007 to less than 25 percent today.  Moving forward, the United States encourages our international partners to join us in adopting four straightforward priorities:

  • Implement best management practices in commercial fleets to minimize their vulnerability to pirate attacks;
  • Discourage ransom payments to pirates;
  • Prosecute pirates in national courts when national ships and crews are attacked; and
  • Support capacity building programs to help countries in the region better prevent pirate attacks and to prosecute pirates and their enablers.

Piracy, like any other criminal enterprise, exists to make money for its perpetrators. The payment of ransoms attracts additional pirate acts, and is a major challenge to curbing piracy.  One of the issues we are working on is trying to determine where the proceeds of ransom payments to pirates are going.  We know that upwards of $50 million in ransom has been paid over the past few years.  It is equally clear that the twenty-year old pirates are not pocketing all that money.  We need to get a better handle on who are the people financing and enabling pirates.

Ultimately, the solution to piracy is on the ground in Somalia.  Somali pirates are taking advantage of the country’s instability and its 1,500-mile coastline.  In this respect, piracy is no different than another familiar criminal enterprise, drug trafficking.  Drug traffickers take advantage of locals where they can grow drugs and move them to a market.  They are taking advantage of the lack of rule of law in a large area to carry-out their criminal enterprise.  International efforts against piracy are treating a symptom of Somali instability.

In addition to counterpiracy, the United States is also committed to parallel international efforts to stabilize Somalia, including through support to its internationally-recognized Transitional Federal Government (TFG).  The foreign terrorist organization al-Shabaab represents a significant threat to the TFG and to the people of Somalia for the instability and destruction it brings to bear. If successful, stabilizing Somalia will go a long way towards helping to root out piracy. This will be a long and difficult process, but I believe we have a chance at succeeding,



New York, USA
October 16, 2009

Ron in New York writes:

Piracy is a crime.... It is also an outcropping of corrupt government; in league with transnational organized crime, terrorists, mercenaries, war-lords, and many groups who will seek to capitalize on instability and lack of security in the region. Piracy is interwoven with many illicit trafficking networks; feeding itself on seized craft, cargo and people, who can be held for ransom. The victory doesn't lie offshore...but in the Capitals.
In the corruption game; the top hand must be removed. Otherwise, the Pirates always have a market. By the way, where do the Pirate's AK47's come from? Do they make them on the Eastern Coast of Africa?

Monica D.
October 17, 2009

Monica writes:

Piracy is definitely not something I would ever want to have to deal with, but it is more than just a moneymaking operation for some of these people.

It can also be a form of political revolt or defense, a way to protect their waters from foreign exploiters who want to dump garbage there or steal their resources. These countries are often too poor to afford a decent coast guard, so people take up and resort to devious means like kidnapping and sabotage to defend their waters.

I guess this could classify as terrorism but I hope the countermeasures against piracy run deeper than simply trying to exterminate all pirates, and try to address attaining stability in the countries affected so that less people resort to piracy.

@ Ron in New York: Also as Ron wrote, stopping the flow of cheap weapons into these countries would be good too.

South Korea
October 17, 2009

Palgye in South Korea writes:


(Is temporary) will make the multinational coalition force for pirate sweeping from the UN peace keeper? Also the authority which is the possibility of closing the fishing industry act which is illegal came to be together given.
(Tactics or in compliance with the goal which is special the militia which is founded?)

The position which is legal is based to an international law and provides...

New York, USA
October 17, 2009

Ron in New York writes:

Dealing with Piracy...

The U.S. DoS team at Doha could deal with the Piracy issue by developing regional partnerships and "pilot" programs against corruption at the Doha UNODC sessions in November. For details:

Virginia, USA
October 17, 2009

Donald in Virginia writes:

Remove the threat by removing the essence of how they are boarding ships. You destroy and prevent those small craft before they use them in criminal activity. Hence without rhibs or boats how can they conduct piracy acts? Besides, the U.S. Navy has a brand new type of craft using off the coast of Columbia, why not ship some of those crafts to the area and patrol. Its a new type of small craft, looks impressive might do the trick to cut down on piracy acts.

North Carolina, USA
October 27, 2009

Chad in North Carolina writes:

Piracy is just a pathetic excuse of sad poor people. a real nation would go confront these so called "pirates" on there turf. Black beard was a true pirate. not these "tally wankers"


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