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International community mulls response to Somalia's piracy problem

With the escalation of piracy off the coast of Somalia, the international community is pondering what action to take. But experts say that as long as Somalia remains a failed state, piracy will continue.

The Maersk Alabama

The attack on the US Maersk Alabama brought the issue to a head

Following the botched US incursion in Somalia in 1993, it seemed unlikely that the US - or any other foreign power - would advocate getting involved in another intervention in this failed state in the Horn of Africa.

But with the escalation in Somali pirate attacks on vessels sailing under a multitude of flags - most recently, the US flag - the distant sound of rattling sabres can be heard.

On Wednesday, April 15, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlined measures the US will take as part of a new diplomatic initiative to combat piracy. These include attempts to track and seize the pirates' assets, expand naval cooperation, and work with shippers to thwart the hijackers that have turned the Gulf of Aden into the world's most treacherous waterway.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks about piracy and Somalia, Wednesday, April 15, 2009, at the State Department in Washington

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton

However, the measures she outlined are being seen largely as symbolic moves while officials mull more comprehensive diplomatic and military action.

According to several US media sources, military plans to deal with the piracy issue have long been in existence. The New York Daily News, for example, recently quoted retired US ambassador Robert Oakley, who served as special envoy to Somalia under the first Bush and Clinton administrations in the 1990s, as saying that US special operations forces have prepared plans for mounting a land assault.

"Our special operations people have been itching to clean them up," he told the paper. "So far, no one has let them. They have plans on the table but are waiting for the green light."

However, many experts maintain that it would be foolhardy to send troops into a country fraught with instability and warring factions, including a network of Islamic extremists known as Al-Shabab.

Somalia has lacked a legally recognized or effective central government since 1991, the year when its last president, military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, was deposed in a civil war that erupted in 1988 and is still ongoing. After his ousting, Somalia's already rudimentary government apparatus disintegrated, plunging the country into lawlessness.

"Boots on the ground will not seriously be considered by the international community," said Corinne Graff, an expert on failed states at the US think tank the Brookings Institution. "The critical task ahead for the international community should be how to break the cycle of violence in order to create sufficient stability on the ground for Westerners, including NGOs, to operate."

German politicians call for action

The US is not alone in its deliberations on a piracy crackdown. In Germany, the liberal FDP party has called on the German government to respond more robustly to the issue. FDP parliamentarian Helmut Koenigshaus told Berlin broadcaster RBB Inforadio that the deployment of soldiers patrolling the Gulf of Aden as part of the EU's anti-piracy Atalanta mission needs to be better coordinated. He said soldiers currently have to stand by helplessly when pirate attacks occur outside their designated areas of activity. Koenigshaus recommended implementing checkpoints at which outgoing ships would be required to register and possibly be checked for weapons.

Aerial photo taken from a French Navy helicopter and released by the French Defense Ministry on Wednesday, April 15, 2009, showing a pirate mother ship

One German politicians says the focus should be on stopping the mother ships

FDP defense expert, Rainer Stinner, however, recommended taking military action against the "mother ships" that harbor the speedboats used so effectively by scores of heavily armed Somali pirates.

"We just have to make sure that these mother ships are taken out of the equation," he said, although he didn't elaborate as to how he saw this being done.

A statement made by the German Defense Ministry earlier this week made it clear that government officials are looking at ways to stop piracy - but not by attacking ships at sea. Instead, Defense Ministry Secretary Thomas Kossendey said that the government wants the international community to work harder to address the root causes of the piracy problem on land.

"Without calming the situation inland, there's little chance of successfully fighting piracy at sea," he told Deutschlandfunk radio. He appealed to the international community to lend more support to Somalia's new transitional government. Justice, administration and security structures need to be built up again so that the government can regain control of the country, Kossendey said.

Leaders from around the world will have an opportunity to formulate an action plan for Somalia at an upcoming donor conference in Brussels aimed at raising reconstruction funds for the war-torn nation. It's also a unique chance for the EU as a whole, said Graff.

"The EU has been reluctant to take any initiative in Somalia given lack of adequate US leadership to seek to end the conflict," she said. "The EU should seize the opportunity of the current attention on Somalia and the upcoming donor conference to become more actively involved in Somalia, increase desperately needed aid to Somalia and help build the capacity of its transitional federal government."

Weak government lacks credibility

So far, Somalia's new transitional government, made up of moderate Islamists, has not been seen as a reliable partner. The escalating piracy problem has only served to highlight its ineffectiveness. However, Somali Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke seems hopeful that all the negative publicity generated by the hijackings can be turned into international momentum to bring change to his country.

"We are not being utilized as much as we could be," he told reporters in a recent interview at the government's compound in Mogadishu. "We need to fight pirates on land. We have information about how they function and who they are."

This undated photo provided Friday, April 10, 2009 by the French Navy shows an armed pirate aboard a French sailboat

The pirates have amassed widespread popular support

Fighting the pirates on land will be a difficult task, however, as in the absence of any alternative, viable system of law or order, they've amassed widespread popular support. Additionally, foreign governments are often viewed with suspicion by many Somalis who feel wealthier nations have been taking advantage of the chaos by abusing their coastal waters.

Experts estimate that illegal fishing by European and Asian countries robs local fishermen of anywhere from $300 - $400 million (227 - 304 million euros) each year. During the 2005 tsunami, it also became evident to what extent foreign states were using the Somali coastline as a dumping ground for toxic waste, as dozens of barrels of hazardous waste products washed up on the country's shores.

Bronwyn Bruton, an international affairs fellow at the US Council of Foreign Relations, says Somalis' awareness of how foreign countries are profiting from their country's misery has increased the pirates' popular support.

"Piracy is really entrenched in Somalia at this point," she said in an interview published on Wednesday. "This is a problem that is going to take a long-term and complex set of solutions."

She also advised the US government and its allies to avoid getting involved in any "grand schemes" in Somalia.

"We have a limited capacity to influence events in Somalia," she said. "But we have an almost unlimited capacity to make a mess of things. If we go in there with guns blazing … the Islamist radicals that we fear in that country will definitely profit from it."

Author: Deanne Corbett
Editor: Michael Knigge

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