Piracy Still Threatens the Freedom of the Seas


Apr 3, 2009

This commentary originally appeared on RFERL.org, the website of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty on April 3, 2009.

As recent events off the Horn of Africa have demonstrated, armed violence at sea is emerging as a growing threat to regional and international security.

Piracy, in particular, threatens the freedom of the seas, increases the cost of international business, endangers political security through corruption, and could trigger a major environmental disaster if carried out in congested maritime corridors traversed by heavily laden oil tankers.

Equally dangerous, piracy could serve as an attractive model for terrorists, particularly in terms of fundraising. In 2008, Somali gangs were estimated to have earned $50 million in ransom payments alone. Extremists may also seek to duplicate the way pirates exploit the highly opaque maritime trading system to implement their logistical, operational, and criminal designs.

The global response to piracy is best exemplified by the actions undertaken off the Horn of Africa, where U.S., European, Russian, Indian, Chinese, and other sovereign naval forces have been dispatched to counter gangs operating in the Gulf of Aden. Several countries have also combined task forces to conduct antipiracy patrols and protect humanitarian supplies dispatched as part of the World Food Program. And the UN Security Council has authorized "cooperating states" to take whatever measures necessary to preempt pirates operating in Somalia's territorial waters.

The international and cooperative nature of these measures — and the speed with which they were enacted — may be surprising. Such cooperation, however, highlights how the use of the seas has evolved over the last several centuries, and that maritime security ultimately relies on international agreement and joint enforcement.

Addressing Root Causes

Nonetheless, the international response off the Horn of Africa is highly unlikely to fully address the complex factors contributing to the emergence of modern-day piracy. In particular, the emphasis on using naval forces only addresses piracy at its end point — on the sea — rather than at its root — on land.

Piracy is, after all, a reflection of underlying socioeconomic conditions on land. That is why to counter the piracy problem off the Horn of Africa — currently the main focus of maritime security concerns — the international community must confront the failed government in Somalia. Until a semblance of political stability is restored to this country, armed gangs will continue to proliferate, threatening the safety of one of the world's most important sea lanes of communication. This could be a mission for the new U.S. Africa Command, perhaps offering a template for working in other areas around the continent.

Still, while leading flag states such as the United States have produced a slate of relatively new documents that outline national policy for enhancing maritime security, they do not establish a clear strategy to support the international organizations and communities that are vested in maritime "good order."

Which brings us a step closer to understanding the intricacy of a key question: how can the global community develop optimum policies and practices for achieving "good order" at sea? Above all, an approach is required that not only addresses today's international maritime security needs, but recognizes the immediate worldwide implications and enduring nature of such arrangements.

Leading maritime states could work with other like-minded governments to build and strengthen the off-shore surveillance and interdiction capacities of weaker maritime countries and sponsor joint civilian-military operations aimed at enhancing the general viability of coastal regions. Extended around the world, such measures would go a long way toward providing a higher and more uniform level of order at sea and, as a result, maritime security for the international community at large.

On a more narrow level, the United States should move to further expand the nascent regime of post-9/11 global maritime security. Although the United States is the world's most powerful maritime state, good order at sea will only be achieved on the back of collective norms, rules, and institutionalized decision-making processes.

To add credence to this effort, the U.S. Congress should quickly ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This is one of the key international legal instruments governing sovereign rights at sea and the use of the maritime environment. With few exceptions, all other littoral states have accepted UNCLOS. It is within this framework, and by applying its structures, that Washington will be best placed to further shape the course of maritime events and the futures of countries with a sea border.

All of this will require political will and foresight. It remains to be seen what, if any, action the international community is prepared to take. Mismanaging the problem today could compound present challenges and generate new ones that may be more considerably difficult to handle.

Peter Chalk is a senior political scientist and Laurence Smallman is a defense research analyst at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis. The views expressed in this commentary are their own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

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