Piracy off the coast of Somalia

The following article, Piracy off the coast of Somalia, comes from the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee website.

Somali piracy is a major problem for the UK and the international community. As a state whose strengths and vulnerabilities are distinctly maritime, the UK should play a leading role in the international response to piracy. The upcoming international conference to be hosted by the UK in February must produce decisive results.

The Government was right to permit private armed guards to defend British flagged shipping against Somali pirates, but it must now provide proper guidance on the legal use of force.

Somali piracy poses a threat to the UK’s national interests as well as global trading routes and international security. The costs of allowing piracy to proliferate are high. The British shipping industry is worth £10.7 billion to the UK’s GDP, and the costs of security, insurance, re-routing have vastly increased the costs of doing business. Over $300 million has been paid in ransoms to Somali pirates over the past four years, and thousands of seafarers have been held hostage, some of whom have been subject to cruel treatment and even torture.

Self-defence measures, multi-national naval operations and prosecutions have begun to take effect, but have not yet contained the problem. A concerted international effort is now required. This report will contribute to the debate on counter-piracy as the FCO prepares to host a major international conference on Somalia in February 2012.

The Committee welcomes the Prime Minister’s announcement that private armed guards will be permitted on UK shipping. However, the Government’s guidance on the use of force, particularly lethal force, is very limited and there is little to help a ship’s master make a judgement on where force can be used.

Committee Chair Richard Ottaway MP said:

“It is unacceptable that 2.6 million square miles of the Indian Ocean has become a no-go area for small vessels, and a dangerous one for commercial shipping. There is a clear need to take decisive action.

Naval forces have had some success, but they cannot hope to police such a large area of operation. Ship owners must take responsibility for their own protection, and the Government must let them do so.

The Government was right to permit private armed guards to defend British flagged shipping against Somali pirates, but its guidance on the legal use of force lacks critical detail. The question anyone would ask is that if a private armed guard on board a UK flagged vessel sees an armed skiff approaching at high speed, can the guard open fire? The Government must provide clearer direction on what is permissible and what is not.”

The Committee expresses surprise that so little is known about what happens to ransom money, which topped $135 million this year alone. It finds that the Government has been “disappointingly slow to take action on financial flows relating to ransom payments, particularly given the information that could be available from British companies involved”.

The Committee concludes that the solution to Somali piracy lies in establishing order on land, ending impunity for piracy crimes and offering alternatives. However, it warns against international claims to deliver a solution in Somalia, and urges the Government to develop its engagement with and support for Somali civil society organisations and local projects.

Paul and Rachel Chandler, who were hijacked and held hostage by Somali pirates, criticised the FCO’s support for their family as “essentially, tea and sympathy”. The Committee recommends that the FCO review its communication and other procedures to support family members of British hostages held abroad.

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