Piracy off the Horn of Africa 31

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.

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31 thoughts on “Piracy off the Horn of Africa

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  • Max

    I really appreciate some of the articles you write but I would be far more comfortable sharing them with others and disseminating the information provided if you could include some third party sources on occasion.

  • craig


    Get googling. Think of it as a newspaper column. They don’t come with footnotes.

  • Max

    Indeed they don’t, which is why I rarely trust anything newspapers write, and why I never buy them.

    I could of course get Googling, but given that you’ve already got the insight, experience and information to hand (hence the article) it could facilitate swifter as well as wider dissemination and understanding of the issues you raise.

    Thanks anyway.

  • MJ

    One aspect of this that I find mystifying is that the seas in question are a vital artery in the oil trade. All tankers taking oil from the Gulf states to Europe, via the Red Sea and the Suez canal, must cross these waters. There has already been at least one instance of an oil tanker being captured and its crew and cargo held to ransom.

    I find the apparent indifference of the UK and US to this issue inexplicable.

  • craig


    If you have read The Catholic Orangemen of Togo or Murder in Samarkand you will see why I know these kind of things.

    I know all about the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, for example, because for three years I was on and later headed the UK delegation at UN negotiations on its entry into force.

    In the last four years years I have worked as a consultant (gratis) for three African governments on maritime boundary and resource issues. I am in Africa just now.

    My point being, I don’t know all this stuff becuase I read it somewhere. I know it from personal experience. I am myself a reference source, if you like.

  • Leo Davidson

    This law cannot be well known else the US government would surely be kidnapping people they don’t like the look of, dropping them on random ships within international waters, then claiming they are “pirates” on “pirate ships” and arresting them to then let them sit in a ship’s brig for months. 🙂

  • craig

    Leo 🙂

    The US is in fact a party to the convention. Clinton ratified it after the Republicans refused for years as part of their general opposition to the concept of the US being governed by international law, and particularly by UN Conventions.

  • Courtenay Barnett

    There are other quite valid, but related issues of:-

    1. Global arms trading; and

    2. The domination of countries and regions for reasons of control of resources (Iraq and Congo come readily to mind); and

    3. Distorting or falsifying reports in the Western media and using dis/misinformation as means to perpetuate the objectives of 1 and 2 above.

    The names of corporations and individuals such as Kissinger, Freeport McMoRan (FXC) and FCX, FCX director J. Stapleton Roy, Walter Kansteiner, Moto Gold (operating in the Congo), Viscount Etienne Davignon, Robert Dole ?” are just a few of the scoundrels who assist in the visits of death, war, hopelessness and destruction on the African continent. When things are put in perspective, the capture of a US vessel ( relative to what its real mission and consequences arising therefrom are ?” pales when compared to the deadly and lasting consequences of the piracy to which this thread refers). Some of the names of the world’s most dangerous “pirates” appear above!

  • George Dutton


    Good post but Craig is right on what he say’s.There are warlords living like kings who are doing most of the piracy.You bring up some excellent points though.

  • amk

    “such a response is a logical fallacy- an “argument from authority””

    An argument from an illegitimate authority is a fallacy (“I am not a doctor but I play one in TV”). An argument from a legitimate authority is valid, although not insurmountable.

    I am not Lewis Page, I just refered to Page’s article.

  • George Dutton

    “I challenge you to convince me otherwise”

    I don’t disagree with you.

    I was telling/pointing out to you that…

    “Piracy initially began as a protective measure against illegal fishing, but later became tied in with the political and financial interests of various war lords and criminal gangs that control parts of the country.”

    Which is in the link I gave above.

    I said that you made “excellent points” in your post.

  • punkscience

    Thank you jimquk, I am antirely in agreement with you.

    Face it, Craig, most of these pirates are desperate and starving. They can’t all live in plush, colonial era villas surrounded by armed guards, 50 wives and child slaves sewing Nike trainers. Yes, there’s a few warlords out there but surely the majority are doing whatever they can to survive because successive Western interventions have destroyed any functioning government that might provide the stability and infrastructure to allow an alternative lifestyle. Dehumanising the victims solves nothing.

  • Anonymous


    But how does that give any right to inflict violence on innocent civilians? It is in logic absolutely no different from the argument that the injustices suffered by the Palestinians justifies terrorist violence against random Israeli civilians. Or IRA bombings of civilians etc etc.

    I don’t accept terrorism as a legitimate response. As I have said before, if they were boarding illegal fishing vessels or dumping ships, that would be a different argument.

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