Maritime piracy is on the decline… Can it stay that way?

Photo Credit: Dryad Global: Maritime Security and Risk Intelligence; London, England. Published in The Guardian. 

While many associate modern day maritime piracy with the Academy Award nominated film Captain Phillips, this transnational threat is a persistent reality for many ships across the globe. There are typically two overarching goals of maritime piracy: robbery to then sell the cargo and goods or kidnapping for ransom—both of which are not mutually exclusive. The stereotype that maritime piracy only occurs off the coast of Somalia is not statistically accurate anymore—the West African Gulf of Guinea is currently one of the largest hot spots. Despite the shifting regions of impact, global piracy is declining overall based on trends from the past decade. However, band-aid solutions stipulated by foreign involvement are ineffective at reducing piracy in the long-term and instead require sustained infrastructure. Examining the international efforts and lack of regional progress to curb Somali piracy provides an illuminating case of such failed efforts.

The modern stereotype that the coast of Somalia is the most pirated area in the world was once true—except expansive international efforts virtually eliminated all acts of piracy. In 2009 alone, 217 of the 406 incidents involved Somali piracy. However, between 2017 and 2021, Somali pirates orchestrated only 12 attacks. This dramatic decrease can be attributed to extensive international efforts to keep piracy in check throughout the region. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) passed seven resolutions between December 2010 and March 2022 targeting anti-piracy efforts off the coast of Somalia. All seven resolutions permitted foreign naval and air forces to enter and patrol Somali waters, effectively eliminating pirate safe-havens. European Union Naval Force Operation Atalanta, in tandem with a U.S.-led task force, were authorized by the UNSC to use “all necessary means to repress piracy and armed robbery at sea.” The international naval and air success is impressive, as there have been no Somali-led attacks in the last four years.  

Somalia’s heavy reliance on international forces and its lack of structural capabilities will have disastrous consequences moving forward. The UNSC failing to renew the UN resolutions to continue piracy efforts off the coast of Somalia in March of 2022 will allow pirates to slowly bubble back to the surface. Unfortunately, the local Somali Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF) cannot make up for the lack of global commitment. This coast guard militia receives funding from the United Arab Emirates and is essentially a corrupted force for the previous Puntland President. PMPF is only one small example that showcases the governmental failure in the country. At the heart of this central government collapse is the lack of resources and other local capabilities. This deprivation, combined with superficial international support, will eventually permit and perpetuate Somali piracy.

For international support to be effective, U.S.- and UNSC-led efforts need to target Somali infrastructure. The region needs sustainable local efforts rather than ephemeral assistance. Addressing the ongoing Somali Civil War and creating jobs for the local population to no longer depend on piracy are merely two broad starting points. Rather than international bandaids, nation building, paired with a functional political system, are two ways in which to consistently keep piracy on the decline. 

It is too soon to tell how quickly or intensely Somali pirates will become a prominent global threat once again, but the fact remains that they will return. International governments have not realized the failure of their actions yet and are making the same mistake with the Gulf of Guinea. In May 2022, the UNSC passed a resolution to combat armed robbery and maritime piracy in the region. Like Somalia, the Gulf of Guinea will become dependent on international efforts to maintain stability. It is not too late for the international community to realize its previous mistakes and shift policy to implement UN-led capacity building programs. The UNSC and the countries under it need to stop playing whack-a-mole with maritime piracy initiatives because these are short term solutions that do not address the systemic root of the issue: regional economic, social, and political instability. It is naive to think that the UNSC will be able to control and limit all forms of piracy across the globe. Therefore, not only will piracy stop declining, it will continue to expand until sustainable solutions are the crux of international and local focus.  

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