I take a hard line on piracy. I am sorry if the lives of Somali fishermen have become more difficult, but that does not justify armed robbery. There is already sufficient danger at sea, that the code among mariners of always assisting someone else in distress is enshrined as a duty in international law. To actually practice piracy – armed robbery at sea – is behaviour that may rightfully be deterred by the use of all necessary armed force.
It is a disgrace that the Royal Navy no longer even pretends to have much interest in protecting British flag vessels, which should be its primary mission. It is configured instead to threaten nuclear annihilation and to support illegal invasions. We need not nuclear submarines but frigates and corvettes.
I favour a much more forceful approach against pirates off the Horn of Africa. I recently saw a television feature on the international convoy patrols there. It noted that the warships warded away pirates but did not attempt to capture them. The Italian Commodore in charge explained that, if they were captured and returned to Somalia or Kenya, the legal process would tie up the ship’s officers as witnesses for months or even years. The courts were corrupt and unreliable.
But territorial waters (as opposed to Exclusive Economic Zone) extend only twelve miles from the coast. The large majority of incidents are occurring further out than this – on the high seas, in technical terms.
If the pirates can be captured on the high seas, then the capturing state may try them itself. This is provided for in Part 7 of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea:
Seizure of a pirate ship or aircraft
On the high seas, or in any other place outside the jurisdiction of any State, every State may seize a pirate ship or aircraft, or a ship or aircraft taken by piracy and under the control of pirates, and arrest the persons and seize the property on board. The courts of the State which carried out the seizure may decide upon the penalties to be imposed, and may also determine the action to be taken with regard to the ships, aircraft or property, subject to the rights of third parties acting in good faith.
I do not believe that to date the international community has used this provision in the Horn of Africa. Pirates should be captured, enjoy several months in the brig of the warship while it finishes its patrol, and then be subjected to criminal trial in the capturing state. Most states still have very severe punishments for piracy mouldering on their statute books.
But there is a much wider issue relating to African countries ability to control their seas. This relates to the exclusive economic zone, which extends two hundred miles from the coast. In particular fishing rights within the EEZ are a huge potential resource for African nations.
Africa has a massive traditional onshore fisheries industry, employing tens of millions and making a vital contribution to feeding hundreds of millions. But Africa has very little developed deep water fisheries capacity. As a result, over 95% of the fish taken from the extremely deep EEZ waters around Africa, are taken by non-African vessels, and generally the fish are not landed n Africa.
The worst of it is that well over half of this deep water fishing is illegal. Most African countries have declared their EEZ and issue fishing licences. But to enforce the license system and clamp down on illegal fishing requires both aircraft and fast fisheries protection vessels, of which which by and large African states don’t have sufficient..
The size of the resource is enormous. Illegal fishing of tuna and other stocks from African EEZs is costing Africa over $20 billion each year. The Japanese and South Koreans are by far the worst offenders, and the Japanese and South Korean governmens display no genuine intention to control their fishermen. Nor do the fishermen show much interest in conservation.
There have been individual country programmes by bilateral aid agencies to increase license revenue and provide enforcement resources, but this has been very patchy. There have also been attempts in individual coountries to privatise the license revenue and enforcement, with mixed results.
It is time a much more serious effort was made to tackle this removal of resources from the people of Africa. International donors should support the African Union in setting up an overarching Maritime authority to oversee licensing, conservation and regional enforcement programmes. For an investment of $3 billion, revenue of ten times that much every year could be secured to Africa.