Efforts to blunt maritime piracy off the coast of Somalia in the Gulf of Aden are beginning to show some success, but there is an international consensus that more must be done, says US Ambassador Stephen Mull.
In testimony April 30 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mull, the acting assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, told lawmakers the United States is seeking emergency consultations with its Contact Group partners and is finding “notable receptivity” to its outreach effort. The Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia was created January 14 to improve discussion and coordination among states and organizations aimed at suppressing piracy at sea.
The United States will intensify its efforts to persuade victim states to prosecute pirates, Mull said. “We are working both internally and with other countries to develop the ability to deny pirates the benefits of concessions, including the tracking and freezing of their ill-gotten gains,” he told the lawmakers, who called him to Capitol Hill for an explanation of U.S. policies on the piracy problem.
“We are working to expand the regional capacity to prosecute and incarcerate pirates, both by helping to fund multilateral programs to build judicial capacity and by direct unilateral assistance to countries who have expressed a willingness to adapt their laws and processes to accommodate prosecution and detention,” Mull said.
Mull said the United States “will continue to press the importance of a no-concessions policy when dealing with pirates.” Additionally, he said, the United States is working “in political-military channels to ensure that military counterpiracy operations are as robust and well-coordinated as possible, and … intensifying our efforts to support Somali assistance processes. We are also exploring strategies to actively seek the release of captive ships and hostages, some of whom have been held for months.”
Mull said those actions are now producing some success. “Naval patrol interventions are increasingly active, international naval forces have intervened to stop dozens of attempted piratical attacks in the past nine months, and we’re seeing a significant upswing in the number of countries willing to commit assets to the effort.”
He acknowledged, however, that the United States faces “political and legal obstacles to a shared understanding of the imperative for prosecution in and by victim states, and significant logistical issues in prosecution by countries who actually have the will to prosecute pirates. Regional states face challenges with regard to detention and prosecution.”
Tracking and freezing pirate ransoms is even harder than tracking terrorist finances, given that pirates are most often paid off in the form of air-dropped bags of cash, he said. Mull also said that “the shipping industry — as well as some of our partners — has vigorous objections to, and few incentives for, arming their ships and crews.” Progress still must be made in that area, he said.
Mull identified fighting piracy as an important element in the United States’ strategic objectives in Somalia, which focus on helping Somalia regain political and economic stability, eliminating the threat of terrorism and responding to the humanitarian needs of the Somali people.
Mull said the United States hopes to be able to leverage its collaborative counterpiracy efforts into increased security cooperation in the maritime domain with nontraditional partners such as China, India and Russia, and bring added focus to regional capacity-building programs.
Mull said the United States has a “multifaceted strategy” to suppress piracy and that the State Department is working with interagency partners to integrate maritime and land-based efforts in Somalia into a comprehensive strategy.
“Our strategic goals are to protect shipping, particularly Americans and U.S.-linked ships; capitalize on international awareness and mobilize cooperation to address the problem; and create a more permanent maritime security arrangement in the region,” Mull said.
He acknowledged, however, that “significant factors affect our pursuit of these goals, including the enormous difficulties inherent in patrolling, or even monitoring through technical means, such a huge expanse of open sea; and, of course, the broader problem of Somalia itself. Legal challenges also exist, including inadequate domestic legal authorities in some states as well as a lack of willingness on the part of some to prosecute suspected pirates.”
Acts of piracy more than doubled in the Gulf of Aden area during 2008. The area spans the Horn of Africa and Somalia’s north coast and is a vital shipping lane connecting the Middle East, Europe, Asia and the Americas. In 2008, an estimated $30 million in ransoms was paid to pirates who hijacked vessels in the Gulf of Aden.
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