By Vidya Sagar Reddy (*)
The recent string of pirate attacks off Somalia signals resurgence of this menace to international shipping and trade. Even as the presence of Indian Navy in these waters helped mitigate some of the attacks, it is imperative for India to take lead and actively engage all the responsible stakeholders to direct international efforts in tackling the root causes of this threat to international maritime security.
Over 700 attacks took place during the previous spell of pirate attacks off Somalia and Western Indian Ocean spanning 2008-2011 with about 750 persons held hostage in 2011, the peak year of piracy. The World Bank had estimated that the cost to global economy due to Somali piracy as $18 billion annually. Delays in shipping, ransoms to pirates, insurance premiums, changes in trade routes, installation of security measures onboard ships etc. contributed to this cost.
The mobilisation of international navies of Europe, India etc. aided by United Nations resolutions helped mitigate this threat. However, observers have warned last year that piracy off Somalia would resurge owing to political instability in Somalia as well as the inadequacy of international community in addressing the root cause of this threat.
Somalis are dependent on fishing for their livelihood. The civil war in the country had left no proper authority to safeguard the territorial seas and exclusive economic zone (EEZ) resulting in illegal fishing as well as dumping of hazardous waste material by foreign entities along Somalia’s coast. The use of dragnets and other banned mechanisms to catch fish has also contributed to the decline of fisheries in Somalia’s waters.
Calling themselves as “saviors of the sea,” the Somali pirates started attacking these fishing trawlers stealing the produce as well as holding the crew for ransom as sort of a “tax.” The attacks got extended to commercial shipping vessels as well as luxury cruises eventually, with the fishing trawlers buying protection from local warlords.
This ground situation seems to remain unchanged, which is re-fueling resentment amongst Somali population leading to the resurgence of pirate attacks. The naval forces were able to hot pursuit pirate ships even within the Somalian territorial waters, conduct special operations, trial and imprison the pirates in various countries. However, the desperate Somali youth unable to find meaningful jobs on land or the sea are compelled to resort to piracy again while the lack of proper enforcement authority to safeguard Somalia’s territorial and EEZ waters is abetting the breeding conditions.
Somalia had made several requests to the international community to help it combat piracy. In addition to contributions from individual countries, the United Nations Security Council has passed resolutions establishing United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia with a mandate to stabilise Somalia. Somalia’s transitional federal governments as well as autonomous states – Somaliland and Puntland have entered into agreements with several firms and private organisations for thwarting piracy, but in vain.
In this situation, it is incumbent upon India to engage all the responsible stakeholders, particularly different autonomous administrations in Somalia, to attain the twin objectives of combating ongoing piracy attempts as well as build partner capacity enabling Somalia safeguard its waters. This should be a specific interest based arrangement to negate any misperception in Somalia against India as influencing its domestic politics.
India is undertaking various measures to combat traditional and non-traditional maritime security threats in the Indian Ocean. The Indian Navy and the Indian Coast Guard routinely exercises with their counterparts in the Indian Ocean building partner capacity enhancing the security of sea lines of communication and safeguarding the EEZs.
India should also consider building partner capacity of Somalia by re-organising, training and equipping its coast guard. New Delhi can deploy a long-term task force to the region for this purpose. The task force could meet its logistical requirements under the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with the United States given the close proximity of Djibouti to the troubled region.
The recent raids by Somali security forces freeing an Indian cargo ship as well as the crew taken hostage by the pirates shows the skill, seriousness and ambition on part of Somalia to combat piracy. This is a welcoming development for India to actively engage relevant agencies to safeguard the maritime global commons.
The Indian Navy along with upgraded Somali coast guard could simultaneously thwart pirate attacks as well as illegal fishing trawlers and dumping of waste material in Somalia’s waters. By apprehending such illegal ships and crews, India can establish trust with Somalia and work towards eradicating the social and economic conditions breeding piracy.
India has growing interests in West Asia and Africa. The European and West Asian countries are mired with problems related to illegal migration, civil wars and power dynamics. Somalia requires a credible, assuring partner to combat piracy. These situations call upon India to make a practical assessment of its intentions and capabilities as a responsible power and take initiative in this situation.