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NATO Begins Anti-Piracy Mission as Experts Question Plausability

The EU on Monday, Oct. 27 welcomed a ceasefire deal in Somalia as NATO successfully completed its first anti-piracy mission off the Somali coast. But experts questioned the current international efforts to combat piracy.

A collection of images from NATO and of the Somali pirates

NATO's anti-piracy mission off Somalia is seen as inadequate by some experts

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer stressed the importance of cooperation between the two Brussels-based institutions during a regular meeting of ambassadors at the alliance's headquarters.

One area in which the two organizations are working together is in the fight against pirates operating in the Gulf of Aden.

While the EU's own operations are to begin shortly, de Hoop Scheffer announced that NATO had just completed its first anti-piracy mission by escorting a cargo ship delivering supplies to the African Union Mission to Somalia.

An Italian destroyer as well as British and Greek frigates arrived in the Gulf of Aden last week as the front guard of NATO's anti-piracy Operation Allied Provider.

The NATO chief said NATO warships would next be escorting World Food Program (WFP) cargos delivering food aid to the region.

"The operation is moving well, and the contacts we are having with the EU are also good," de Hoop Scheffer said.

The EU has also pledged another three or four vessels by December in a bid to stem a phenomenon that is threatening world trade.

Solana, for his part, welcomed a ceasefire agreement clinched over the weekend by the Somali government and parts of the Islamist opposition.

"This agreement is an important step forward," Solana said in a statement issued by his office in Brussels.

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, left, and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana

De Hoop Scheffer and Solana join forces against piracy

"Only an inclusive political process will bring durable peace to Somalia, and I call on all Somalis to rally behind the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia and the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia and their endeavor to achieve this," the statement said.

Political instability has played a major role in preventing Somalia from stopping gangs of pirates from seizing commercial vessels sailing off the country's coast, prompting foreign organizations and nations to intervene.

Experts doubt plausability of international efforts

But despite western navies being spurred into action by the recent spate of high-profile hijackings by Somali pirates, some experts argue that a handful of warships can do little to stamp out the lucrative piracy business.

But experts say a beefed up naval presence can achieve little more than escort services for food aid deliveries.

"When it comes to suppressing piracy, an extra 10 or 11 ships is still not a huge amount of naval presence for a very large area," said Roger Middleton, consultant researcher for London-based think-tank Chatham House in an interview with the AFP news agency.

The German navy frigate Emden

The German navy frigate Emden will soon be deployed in the fight against piracy

The new deployments added to the foreign ships already operating off the coast of Somalia will eventually bring to between 20 and 25 the total number of warships patrolling the area's dangerous waters by the end of the year.

According to the International Maritime Bureau, Somali pirates have attacked more than 60 ships since the start of 2008, hijacked almost half of them and received millions of dollars in ransom money.

The hijacking on September 25 of a Ukrainian cargo loaded with battle tanks and other weaponry captured the world's attention and may have sped up international action.

Spreading piracy may overwhelm task force

But pirates have expanded their activities to the eastern coast and the Indian Ocean and foreign warships will already have their hands full trying to secure a maritime corridor in the Gulf of Aden.

"If there is sufficient coordination between all these foreign actors, it can act as a deterrent but it's definitely not the death knell of Somali piracy," Middleton told AFP.

The German navy frigate Emden

NATO ships are spread thinly around the African coast

Western navies with modern equipment are already stretched by conflicts elsewhere in the world and experts argue the number of foreign warships tasked with patrolling Somalia's waters is unlikely to increase significantly in 2009.

Many observers argue sending ships is a band-aid approach which fails to look at the root causes of the phenomenon.

Most pirate groups operate from the coast of Puntland, a lawless breakaway state in northern Somalia. Observers say ineffective security forces there and poverty have allowed piracy to flourish.

In the 17th century, Haiti's French governor brought hundreds of prostitutes to the famous pirate lair of Tortuga in a bid to tame the island's troublesome buccaneers.

Such a move is hardly an option in modern-day Somalia and France has markedly changed tactics since, being the only country so far to have used its military firepower against the pirates.

Circumstances negate use of force

A French soldier on board the French warship Premier Maitre LHer, with the cargo ship Victoria in the background

The French are the only ones to engage militarily so far

But that approach is reserved for those countries with strong intervention capabilities, raises awkward questions with regard to international law and is often neutralized by the risk posed to hostages.

"Sending warships can only have a limited effect... one of the best ways of combating piracy would be to stop the decline of Puntland," said Stig Jarle Hansen, a Somalia expert with the Denmark-based Risk Intelligence group.

Hansen argues that not only is there no evidence of ties between pirates and Somalia's Islamist Shebab organization, which has been fighting the country's government, but the Islamists were more effective than most in combating piracy.

A 2006 Ethiopian invasion to oust the Islamic Courts Union that had taken control of much of the country and support a fragile transitional government had a major impact on the surge in piracy.

"Before the invasion, the Shebab were probably the best pirate fighters the country has known," said Hansen, also a senior researcher with the Norwegian Institute for Urban and regional Research.

However there are signs that major foreign players could seek to address some of the root causes and are mulling a "naval peacekeeping force" that also tackles illegal fishing and waste dumping in Somali waters, two issues that are often used as justifications by pirates.

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