Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Know Your Somali Pirates

Pirates this and pirates that. I know. But before you're assaulted with more of the sensational "dead teen pirate porn," as Lindsay puts it, you should contextualize:
As soon as the government was gone [in 1991], mysterious European ships started appearing off the coast of Somalia, dumping vast barrels into the ocean. The coastal population began to sicken. At first they suffered strange rashes, nausea and malformed babies. Then, after the 2005 tsunami, hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than 300 died. Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN envoy to Somalia, tells me: "Somebody is dumping nuclear material here. There is also lead, and heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury - you name it." Much of it can be traced back to European hospitals and factories, who seem to be passing it on to the Italian mafia to "dispose" of cheaply. When I asked Ould-Abdallah what European governments were doing about it, he said with a sigh: "Nothing. There has been no clean-up, no compensation, and no prevention."

At the same time, other European ships have been looting Somalia's seas of their greatest resource: seafood. We have destroyed our own fish-stocks by over-exploitation - and now we have moved on to theirs. More than $300m worth of tuna, shrimp, lobster and other sea-life is being stolen every year by vast trawlers illegally sailing into Somalia's unprotected seas. The local fishermen have suddenly lost their livelihoods, and they are starving. Mohammed Hussein, a fisherman in the town of Marka 100km south of Mogadishu, told Reuters: "If nothing is done, there soon won't be much fish left in our coastal waters."

This is the context in which the men we are calling "pirates" have emerged. Everyone agrees they were ordinary Somalian fishermen who at first took speedboats to try to dissuade the dumpers and trawlers, or at least wage a 'tax' on them. They call themselves the Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia...

Did we expect starving Somalians to stand passively on their beaches, paddling in our nuclear waste, and watch us snatch their fish to eat in restaurants in London and Paris and Rome? We didn't act on those crimes - but when some of the fishermen responded by disrupting the transit-corridor for 20 percent of the world's oil supply, we begin to shriek about "evil."

It is my understanding that the standard U.S. Navy practice in maritime kidnapping situations like the Maersk Alabama incident has been to stand aside while ransom negotiations take place between the pirates and the ship owner/operator. The pirates sometimes contact the Navy, but the Navy’s practice in such instances has been to provide them with the telephone number of the ship owner/operator, so that the pirates can negotiate directly with the firm.

I have a few questions. Why didn’t that happen in this case? Why did the Navy in this instance apparently engage in direct hostage (i.e., non-ransom) negotiations with the pirates, instead of letting Maersk negotiate with the pirates for a ransom? Was it because the ship originally hijacked was a US-flag ship? Because the kidnapped person was a US national? Because the situation was logistically different in terms of the kidnapped person being on a lifeboat and the hijacked ship no longer being in the possession of the pirates? Some combination of these factors?...

As acknowledged by Admiral Gortney toward the end of his telephone call with news reporters, the killing of the three pirates by the Navy SEAL snipers creates a risk of elevating the overall level of violence in future ship hijackings, which can increase the risks faced by the mariners on these cargo ships. If that’s the case, and if there aren’t enough naval ships from various countries to fully patrol the area, as the Navy repeatedly acknowledges, then was this operation an unalloyed success?


Cheryl Rofer said...

I have no doubt that it is possible that wastes have been dumped off the Somalian coast.

But this article is simply hearsay. If the waste is nuclear waste, that would be simple to verify with radiation counters. Also whether the levels of radiation would be high enough to produce the reported symptoms. Barrels dumped off the coast would have to contain high-level waste to produce such symptoms by leaking into the water, which seems to be implied in the article.

I repeat: it's possible this story is true. But the article offers no evidence, no investigation. And stories like that have been false in the past.

Anonymous said...

I don't think the situation will change much until Somalia has a stable government. Until then we will continue to see attacks on ships. I offer a little more on this on my blog at:

MT said...

Sure, but you can still laugh at them for the eye patches and the wooden legs.