Piracy off the Coast of Somalia

The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee has published the Tenth Report of Session 2010–12: Piracy off the coast of Somalia

Published on 5 January 2012 by authority of the House of Commons, the report is available online at Maritime Security Review. Click here to view full report



Over the last four years, Somali piracy has grown into a major problem for the international community, representing a threat to vital trading routes and to national and international security.

As a state whose strengths and vulnerabilities are distinctly maritime, the UK should play a leading role in the international response to piracy. Despite nine UN Security Council resolutions and three multinational naval operations, the counter-piracy policy has had limited impact. The number of attempted attacks, the cost to the industry and the cost of the ransoms have all increased significantly since 2007.

The shipping industry has largely focused on non-lethal defence measures, with some success. However, in the face of a continuing threat from pirates, over the last 12 months there has been a perceptible shift toward using more robust defence measures. We heard compelling evidence in support of using private armed guards, and welcome the Prime Minister’s recent announcement that they will be allowed on UK shipping. The guidance published by the Government offers practical advice, but does not provide clear and full guidance on the legal use of force.

NATO, the EU and the Combined Maritime Task Force have all established naval operations to counter piracy. Alongside self-defence measures on shipping, these have contributed to a significant decrease in the ratio of successful hijackings to attempts, but have so far been unable to contain the growth in the overall number of attacks and the area in which pirates can operate. There have recently been welcome signs that naval forces are taking more robust action. However, the risk to pirates of serious consequences is still too low to outweigh the lucrative rewards from piracy. The UK has contributed naval assets to all three of the naval operations at different times, but the FCO Minister could not offer a guarantee that this commitment would not be cut in future. It is difficult to see how the UK could continue to play a “leading role” in the international response without a visible commitment of at least one British naval vessel to one of these operations at all times.

Even when pirates are detained by naval forces, it has been estimated that around 90% are released without charge. Gathering evidence to secure a successful prosecution for piracy is clearly challenging, but when pirates are observed in boats with guns, ladders and even hostages, it beggars belief that they cannot be prosecuted. We accept that there are difficulties inherent in bringing pirates back to the UK for prosecution, and transferring suspects to be prosecuted in local courts should remain the preferred option. However, there is no legal reason preventing the UK from asserting jurisdiction over suspected pirates, if no other state is willing to do so.

Over the last four years, average ransoms have risen from $600,000 to $4.7 million per vessel and ransoms paid in 2011 have totalled an alarming $135m, which should be a matter of deep concern to the British Government and to the entire international maritime community. The Government has been right to act at an international level to ensure that the payment of ransoms remains legal in order to ensure the safety of the crew. However, the Government has been disappointingly slow to track financial flows from piracy. We are surprised by the continuing lack of information available about those funding and profiting from piracy, and welcome the Government’s new initiative for a centre based in the Seychelles to focus on pirate financiers.

The UK has channelled much of its counter-piracy work through international organisations, which is commendable and has achieved good results in the Gulf of Aden. It does not appear, however, that international efforts have been as decisive, timely or effective in curbing Somali piracy in the Indian Ocean. The Government’s overall approach to tackling the problem of Somali piracy through a number of different departments is correct but lacks clear leadership and the Government should provide a statement clarifying which department has the overall lead on countering piracy.

It has become a truism that the long-term solution to piracy lies on land in Somalia. In addition to supporting the work of the Transitional Federal Government to establish order, the Government should step up its work with grassroots organisations and communities in Somalia to discourage piracy and to develop alternative means of employment.

Paul and Rachel Chandler, who were hijacked and held hostage by Somali pirates in 2009–10, have made a number of criticisms of the FCO’s handling of their case, particularly about the level of support provided to their family. The FCO should review its communication and other procedures to provide support to family members of British hostages abroad in the light of these criticisms.

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