EU piracy policy is 'a classic case of double standards'
by Justin Stares
Threatening Somali pirates with imprisonment is laughable when you consider that many are on a suicide mission, but this is nevertheless the basis of European Union policy
Half of all pirates who set to sea from the Somali coast will never return, according to the latest industry estimates. Attacks now take place so far from the coast that many hapless pirates run out of water and fuel if they do not find a ship to hijack. The amazingly high mortality rate is not enough though to put off potential pirates, a recent seminar in Brussels heard. Desperate Somalis - many no doubt close to starvation - are begging for the chance to try their luck. Piracy is in many cases suicidal, but there is a small chance of a multi-million dollar jackpot.
If death is no deterrent, how do pirates feel about the prospect to imprisonment? The seminar, organised jointly by the European Commission and the Danish European Union presidency, heard that prosecuting suspects was the "achilles heel" of the EU's Operation Atalanta. First and foremost, there is almost no willingness to bring suspects back to Europe to face trial. With few exceptions, pirates caught red-handed by EU Navfor, the Brussels navy, are simply given enough fuel to return home or even dropped off on a Somali beach. Around 85 per cent of those caught are released.
Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, has toured the region in an attempt to convince local governments to take the strain. Her pleas have met with mixed success. Kenya was reported to be willing to undertake prosecutions on a "case-by-case" basis and currently holds around 120 pirates behind bars. Negotiations between the EU and Tanzania on a piracy transfer agreement are underway. The Seychelles and Mauritius, two countries that have concluded transfer agreements with the EU, have in turn struck agreements with Somaliland and Puntland so prisoners could be held locally. Somalia is itself said to have arrested between 300 and 400 pirates. But ship-owners say many pirates view arrest as one of the more favourable outcomes of their venture. "Some pirates actually want to get arrested as they think it is their ticket out of Somalia," said one ship-owner at the Brussels conference.
Meanwhile, international efforts to reinforce legal systems around the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden have been hampered by a "lack of trust". The Contact Group on Piracy, a worldwide gathering of national governments, has set up a fund designed to "help defray the expenses associated with prosecution of suspected pirates". But few governments have contributed. "Donors preferred bilateral agreements" to a multi-national system, an EU representative says. In all cases, the EU has insisted that transferred suspects be treated according to European legal standards. This means they must be provided with interpreters, not tortured, and under no circumstances must they face the death penalty. If these commitments are adhered to, suspected pirates become first-class prisoners in a region not renowned for its respect of human rights.
In a sign that EU Navfor might need to get more aggressive, European ministers last month gave the force permission to start attacking pirate bases along Somalia's shoreline. But targeting and munitions are to be restrained in order to reduce collateral damage. If European navies had their way, pirates would be thrown back into the sea with their hands and legs tied – this is how scourges were eradicated in centuries gone by. But times have changed. Pirates now have human rights. It is tempting to see the EU's piracy policy as a classic case of double standards. Given a "just" cause, certain European nations will instruct their forces to kill enemy combatants without wracking themselves with guilt - even when innocent bystanders are caught in the crossfire.
But in the Indian Ocean, pirates are considered criminals and must therefore be afforded due process. The fact that the scores of seafarers who have been executed by pirates are Asian, and not European, has helped maintain this dodgy distinction. The Indian navy has taken a different approach. The Indians sank four pirate motherships last year, killing both pirates and the hostages they held on board. As a result, pirates no longer approach Indian territorial waters. It is food for thought.