Roger Middleton: Only by tackling poverty can piracy be eradicated

Pirates made around $100m last year, while the government of their region has an annual budgetof $25m

Monday 15 November 2010 01:00

The release of Rachel and Paul Chandler brings to an end the highest profile and longest running incident of Somali piracy – and while their family and supporters will delight in the reunion, many others are still waiting for their relatives to be released. Despite huge international attention and millions of dollars spent on counter-piracy operations, hundreds of sailors are still being held by pirates.

The core of the problem lies in Somalia. As long as a political situation exists that allows criminality to flourish it is very hard for the navies of the world to put an end to this problem. Pirates can be chased on the ocean, but piracy can only be eradicated on land.

Pirates have proved remarkably adaptive in the face of increased pressure. Once they operated within 50 miles of the Somali coast; now they regularly work over 1,000 miles from Somalia. Navies have made the Gulf of Aden very difficult for pirates but all that has done is to displace the problem into the wider Indian Ocean.

The multi-national naval response has, considering its limited resources, been effective and has captured hundreds of pirates. But the reality remains that most of the ocean across which Somali pirates operate is unprotected, and for every pirate taken there are many more ready to replace him.

For piracy remains an exceptionally lucrative exercise. In the last few weeks ransom payments of $7m and $9m have been made. Even the most expendable links in the piracy operation, the young men who go out on small plastic boats to capture ships, will make around $10,000 for a successful attack – more than 10 times what they could otherwise expect to earn in a year.

Piracy is such big business that its value dwarfs everything but remittances from Somalia's huge diaspora in the amount of money it brings into the country. Pirates made around $100m last year while the regional government of Puntland, where most pirate leaders hail from, has an annual budget of $25m. International efforts to build government in Somalia in the last two decades have been a failure but home-grown solutions in the north of the country have been remarkably successful.

In the self-declared independent republic of Somaliland in the north-west piracy is not a problem. The key is the effectiveness of the Somaliland government; it is widely accepted by the people and saw a peaceful democratic transfer of power earlier this year.

It is the growth of effective government in other parts of Somalia that will create the environment for tackling the connected problems of piracy, poverty, war, hunger, people smuggling and gun running.

As pirates become richer they become harder to dislodge. So, as we celebrate the return of the Chandlers, we should not forget the hundreds of sailors still held by pirates, nor the people of Somalia whose attempts to improve their country are undermined by crime lords.

The writer is the author of a Chatham House report on piracy

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