Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Beyond Pirate Sympathy

Looking at young Mr. Abduhl Wali-i-Musa being brought into court in handcuffs, it is natural to feel sympathy for a teenager lured into criminal activity. As the only survivor of four pirates who tried to hijack the American Maersk Alabama and did take ship captain Richard Phillips hostage last month, he has become, in the minds of some observers, yet another symbol of American brutality. Yet the image of poor Somali fishermen merely protecting their territorial waters and trying to eke out a living in a war-torn nation is a false one.

The United Nations envoy to Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, is a man to be trusted. So when he states that nuclear material and heavy metals are being dumped in Somali waters, that is a claim to be believed. Nevertheless, the pirate attacks are mostly taking place beyond the 12-mile limit set by international law as a nation’s nautical boundaries. That is not defending one’s own waters, especially when well-equipped “mother ships” even farther out to sea are tracking vessels to be hijacked and those vessels sometimes contain humanitarian supplies for Somali people.

Someone said to me recently that the pirates haven’t killed anyone and that Somali elders from Puntland should have been brought in to engage in negotiations before force was used. It is true that the pirates have not shown a bloodthirsty streak, and in fact, feeding the hostages reportedly has become an industry unto itself in the port of Eyl. Special restaurants are said to have been established to prepare food for the crews of hijacked ships. However, when you hold loaded weapons on crews, hijack vessels and hold them for ransom, you have crossed a line that places your own life in jeopardy.

More than 30% of the world’s oil passes through the now-endangered Gulf of Aden, and there is little patience in feeding a growing piracy industry. Besides, the Somali pirates last year earned an estimated US$30million, while the Puntland budget was only US$20 million. How likely is it that Puntland leaders have the ability or the will to stop the pirates? They haven’t done much to stop the pirates thus far, and the port town of Eyl has been a safe haven for pirates who build fancy houses and drive expensive cars without concern for being arrested.

Still, this is a situation created by the neglect of Western nations, which saw the country devolve into chaos in the early 1990s and have done little to end the strife many Somalis have endured for nearly two decades. At an April 23 donor conference in Brussels, more than US$200 million was pledged to support the 4,000-troop strong African Union Mission in Somalia and strengthen the Transitional Federal Government security forces. Even as the pirates are brought to justice, these donors must be serious about helping to restore Somalia to the community of nations, or those who pray for our help today will turn against us and toward the criminals tomorrow. Young Mr. Musa is only an example of what the future could look like if we fail.

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