Roger Middleton: If we want to stop the Somali pirates, we must look to the shore

International navies are patrolling Somali waters looking for pirates. This action, while welcome, is only addressing the symptoms of Somalia’s collapse. It is not a solution to piracy and nor will it resolve Somalia’s instability. If we want to secure the sea and contribute to peace in Somalia we need imaginative approaches. What Somalia needs more than a naval force is an international coastguard. Sending navies to fight piracy in Somalia is a way of being seen to take the “right” kind of action but with minimal risk to life or equipment.

However, it does not alter the fundamental factors driving people into piracy; the ability to make thousands of dollars per operation, in a country with a GDP per head of $600 is far greater than the disincentive of arrest.

Piracy cannot be defeated by navies. That can only happen when law is established and alternatives are presented to the pirates. Navies can certainly help to contain piracy and do perform an indispensable role protecting the delivery of food aid, but they cannot end this problem from the sea. A coastguard, however, is better designed for what is a law and order issue, and as part of a comprehensive approach to Somalia’s instability offers a real prospect for progress.

Why are so many nations then sending their ships and sailors to the eastern Indian Ocean? Some say they are attempting to protect fishing fleets trawling for tuna – pirates have often used illegal fishing as an excuse – but they are drawn by the money and not a desire to protect coastal fishermen.

Somalia’s problems are greater than piracy. It is chronically unstable and dangerous and millions of its citizens need humanitarian aid. The naval presence off Somalia’s coast is a good thing for sailors and shipping companies; it makes them less likely to be attacked and means that someone will be on hand during any period in captivity. The fundamental causes of piracy are not being addressed however: there must be a political settlement on land. A coastguard that combats piracy and protects Somali fishing could be the waterborne element of a wider diplomatic strategy to bring peace and stability to Somalia.

Roger Middleton was speaking last night at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, where he is consultant researcher for the Africa programme