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Somalia's Pirate Problem

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Everyone agrees that there are pirates off the coast of Somalia. Actually identifying them is tougher.

To the western media and commercial shippers, the men riding the outboard motors equipped with AK-47s are the pirates. Their speed - it takes on average eight minutes to board a ship - is too quick for even the fastest U.S. warship. The ransom demands impede business for everyone.

But, the men boarding the boats don't seem themselves as pirates. As a lawyer defending one man in the Netherlands said, he is a modern-day Robin Hood. Steal from the ships of rich countries to give to their poor families back in war-torn Somalia. For a country in the midst of conflict where 73 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, Robin Hood is better than starvation.

The Somalis will tell you pirates exist beyond the coral reefs. But, you won't find them on outboard motors with AK-47s. The real pirates, they argue, are the foreign commercial fishing fleets that have plundered the Horn of Africa's valuable fish and devastated the local fisherman.

With all of this finger-pointing on the high seas, distinguishing Robin Hood from Captain Hook can be a difficult task. That's why hearing both sides is so important.

In 1991, Somalia's last functional government collapsed leaving 3,330 kilometres of coastline unguarded - unguarded and rich with seafood.

As the Somali people watched their country descend into chaos, they also watched ships emerge on the horizon. Some dumped toxic waste - so much the tsunami threw it onto beaches causing radiation sickness among the local population. Then came the trawlers from Asia and Europe using underwater lighting to lure their catch away from coastal fishermen. Local business plummeted while the United Nations estimates $300 million worth of seafood is stolen each year.

"Fishing is a brutal business," says Peter Lehr, author of Violence at Sea: Piracy in the Age of Global Terrorism. "These trawlers are more powerful than the Somali fisherman and they basically chase them out of the waters."

To the fishermen, these ships are the pirates. With no government to defend them, they took to the seas themselves.

The fishermen formed a "coastguard," teaming up with local militias and warlords to scare off the foreign pirates or demand "taxes." Lehr explains they financed themselves originally through knife-point robberies. Like smart businessmen, they invested.

Using their plunder, the Somali "coastguard" bought more powerful weaponry and GPS locators enabling them to board bigger ships. Bigger ships meant bigger ransoms. The average now stands at about $2 million.

Suddenly, "defending" Somali waters became lucrative business.

So much so that some groups began hiring on-shore caters with Western cooking skills to feed their hostages.

Now, they've begun moving out of Somali waters and into the coast off Oman.

"There are only a few options here," says Lehr. "You can wait for social welfare, you can starve or you can try to do something else to feed your family. In Somalia, that's mostly piracy."

Of course, the motives of the Somali pirates aren't completely altruistic. What started as a form of vigilante defense has become organized crime. They've been known to steal from local fishermen, too. Bigger business means bolder action. In recent months they've travelled out of Somali waters and attacked legal vessels.

But, it's still important to remember there are other criminals in these waters - ones who are equally guilty of plundering and terrorizing. Simply hunting down the men on the outboard motors is only addressing half the problem. The international community needs to start pointing fingers at the other group of pirates - ones that hail from shores closer to our own.

There are two groups of pirates off of the Horn of Africa. We need to bring all of them to justice.