Andrew Mitchell, the shadow international development secretary, recently returned from the Kenya-Somalia border. Here he argues that as well as taking the fight to the pirates at sea, the root causes of the problem must be tackled.
The terrifying ordeal last month of Captain Richard Phillips, the US seaman captured by pirates, has brought home to the world the scale of the threat posed by pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden and beyond.
We must tackle this threat head on – the free world cannot allow renegade hostage-takers to bring international trade to a halt and block up one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. And although to date the pirates have been more interested in taking ransoms than lives, we must work on the basis that they could soon add deliberate murder to their tactic book.
But let us be clear: the threat extends beyond the immediate danger to ships and their crews. The piracy we are seeing is a direct consequence of prolonged state failure and instability in Somalia, which has the potential to destabilise the whole region and export terrorism and disease to our own shores – as well as deepening the already appalling humanitarian crisis.
I recently visited a camp for Somali refugees in Dadaab, Northern Kenya. One man told me how he had fled in terror with his wife and children six months ago. They are some of the many refugees who have been forced to build their own rudimentary shelters beyond the official boundaries of the three UN camps in Dadaab, which now hold over 260,000 people yet were built for just 90,000.
At one extreme the elected camp leader has lived there for 19 years, while at the other new arrivals are streaming in at a rate of up to 165 every day – demonstrating in microcosm that this is an immediate crisis embedded in an entrenched and deeply rooted disaster.
So our response to the pirate menace must be twofold. As well as acting to deter the pirates at sea, Britain and the international community should do more to tackle one of the key underlying causes of the problem: the chaos and insecurity in Somalia, the world’s worst failed state.
This is a matter of our own self-interest. But some people I met suggested that European countries should take some of the blame for the crisis too. They argue that over-fishing and toxic dumping have contributed to the economic collapse of the semi-autonomous coastal Puntland region of Somalia from which most of the pirates have emerged.
Solving the problems of Somalia is far from easy – as President Clinton found in 1993 when the infamous ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident undermined his attempts at direct humanitarian-military intervention there. But there is a chink of light that points us to a way forward. In January, Sheikh Sharif, a former hardline Islamist who appears to have renounced his extreme approach, was installed as the national president. With a new leader heading up a broad coalition in Mogadishu, there is now something to build upon and work with.
The message I received when I was in the region could not have been clearer even though it came from some very different voices. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki do not agree on much – in fact they are essentially at war with one another and have historically supported opposing factions in Somalia – but they both told me individually that it’s time for the international community to help move things forward. They too have a responsibility to do more to promote peace and stability in the region. But their point remains valid: the international community must take action to help stabilise Somalia and create a functioning legitimate state.
We should support state-building efforts and help Somalis work towards a viable political solution covering the whole of the country. We should look at ways of using our aid to help build the sinews of the state – a responsible army, police and judiciary, and functioning public services. We should also investigate the establishment of an umbrella forum for all factions to hammer out their differences.
On the direct question of tackling piracy, we need to ensure coordination of the separate international taskforces in the region. With attacks now taking place over such a wide area, having spread from the Gulf of Aden as far south as the Seychelles, the policing task is huge and it will be vital that the respective navies complement each other efficiently and effectively. An action by one navy affects the menu of options open to another – as we saw in the intertwining of the French yacht and American cargo hostage situations last week – so we have to work together.
Kenya has a unique role to play as it is the only country in the region which is willing and able to actually prosecute pirates. The arrangement at the moment is that European and American forces will capture the pirates and Kenyan courts will try them. This is innovative and sensible, but the Kenyans may need further technical or financial support from outside.
The causes of piracy are complex, so our response to it must be subtle as well as firm. We need to complement our military response with a hard-headed and effective political, diplomatic and humanitarian effort. Lives depend on it.
Watch Andrew Mitchell talking about the issue here: