UNITED NATIONS -- Some 1,500 pirates from Somalia have turned the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden into perilous waters and created a mafia-driven economy in the northeast African country.
In a 56-page report to the Security Council, a U.N. envoy suggested new courts in Somali enclaves as well as in Tanzania along with the construction of jails. There was no immediate agreement but delegates, including US Ambassador Susan Rice, promised to consider the proposals by Jack Lang, a former French culture minister and now a special UN legal advisor on piracy.
"There is a race between the pirates and the rest of the world," Lang said. "These are 1,500 people who are defying the world."
The annual cost is estimated somewhere between $5 billion to $7 billion in captured vessels, local fishing fleets and tourism. In 2010, pirates hijacked a record 53 ships and 1,181 crew members, most of them off the Somalia coast, says the International Maritime Bureau in London. That's a 10 percent increase over 2009.
Piracy arose as a response by local fisherman to illegal fishing by foreign trawlers. Some have attributed an upsurge in to the 2004 tsunami that demolished Somali fishing fleets and washed ashore rusting containers of toxic waste from European vessels.
Bigger vessels and villas
But the lads who hijack foreign vessels are on the low end of the totem pole with their bosses forming a mafia-like operation, Lang told a news conference. The ransom money buys bigger and better vessels with sophisticated navigation and GPS equipment - and pays for villas, perhaps in Dubai or Kenya.
Somalia has been without a functioning central government since the 1991 ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, leading to a civil war that has still not subsided. Currently the internationally-recognized Transitional Federal Government controls a part of Mogadishu, the capital, while the Islamic Al Shabaab group (which says it wants close ties to Al Qaeda), controls swathes in southern and central Somalia.
Lang, in his report, said some pirates have relocated to areas controlled by Al Shabaab, suggesting "there are ad hoc agreements guaranteeing tranquility" in return for a portion of the ransom money. He said many of the piracy bosses were known and should be hunted down.
All necessary means
The UN Security Council has authorized nations and regional organizations to enter Somalia's territorial waters and use "all necessary means" - including the deployment of naval vessels and military aircraft. They can also seize vessels, arms and equipment used for piracy. But it is not helping. Just this week pirates seized a German cargo ship, owned by Beluga Nomination in Bremen, along with 12 crew in the Indian Ocean. Add that to the 28 ships with more than 600 crew on board the pirates are holding.
Lang said the Somali population was increasingly dependent on piracy, finding it difficult to export camels or sheep to Gulf countries. So people are gradually relying on support from the pirates. "The risk of reaching a point of no return is emerging, with the creation of a veritable mafia, piracy-driven economy," he wrote.
Since most of the pirates are based in the autonomous Puntland region in northeastern Somalia, Lang proposed special courts and jails be established there as well as the neighboring breakaway region of Somaliland. Hundreds of suspects are already in jail there but in poor conditions. The cost would be $25 million over three years.
Another proposal was to set up a court in Arusha, Tanzania, the seat of a UN tribunal for perpetrators of the Rwanda genocide. But Tanzania has not greeted the proposal positively and Kenya, which has held Somalis captured by foreign navies, has declined to try any more, saying its legal system is overloaded.
Britain's UN deputy ambassador, Philip Parham, said Somali courts and prisons were "the best long-term solution." But he said but the Arusha court would be needed for Rwanda trials for "the foreseeable future."
India, which uses the waterways and has thwarted hijacking attempts, wants a tracking of the ransom money to different parts of the world and the prosecution of the "beneficiaries of the ransom money," its UN ambassador, Hardeep Singh Puri, told the Security Council.
What is clear is that there is no quick fix or romantic patches over one eye. But as long as a ransom is paid and impoverished Somalia is in shambles, combating piracy is a matter of hit and miss and depends on fire power of vessels or foreign navies rushing to their protection.
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