Arbitrary - Upon Suspicion


DJIBUTI/BERLIN/BRATISLAVA (Own report) - The NATO defense ministers' meeting opened yesterday with a debate on the war on piracy at the Horn of Africa. The debate focused on plans for closer coordination of the NATO, EU and independent nations' troops operating off the East African coast, to give more strike capability to the intervention. The meager results to be shown by the multinational naval deployment have placed this debate on the agenda. As demonstrated in recently published statistics, this large scale intervention has not led to fewer attacks of piracy but rather to an escalation of violence. Currently, the only tangible result has been the imposition of the arbitrary right of might on the high seas. Only recently, the German navy reported that, on the basis of mere suspicion, its troops had stopped three ships, forced their passengers to disembark and then sank two of the ships. This has become a common practice, one that scoffs at international standards. The arbitrary methods being used by the warships of the EU against boats carrying refugees toward Europe in the Mediterranean are now being practiced on the high seas off the coast of East Africa.

The opening of yesterday's discussions at the NATO defense ministers meeting included a debate on the war on piracy off the coast of the Horn of Africa. The debate focused on plans for a better coordination of the numerous, independently operating, naval units. The EU and NATO are maintaining their own units in the area. Other nations, for example, Russia, China, Japan, India and Iran also have their national contingents present. The NATO is discussing ways of initiating closer cooperation between these participating units, to achieve a higher degree of strike capability. This, in addition, would give the West more control over the entire operation, thereby stabilizing its predomination.

More Ambushes

Recent statistics published this week by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), gave the intervention off the coast of Somalia very low grades. The IMB maintains a Piracy Reporting Center (PRC) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, that keeps record of piracy attacks worldwide. According to the PRC, the pirates' "success rate" in comparison to last year has clearly diminished. In the first nine months of this year (Jan. - Sept.), only one ambushed ship out of nine was successfully hijacked, as opposed to one out of 6.4 ships during the same period in 2008. But the pirates balanced this out with more ambushes. The PRC counted 306 attacks by October 1 - as opposed to 293 throughout the whole of 2008 - in which 661 people were taken hostage, twelve kidnapped, six killed and eight reported missing. More than half of the overall number of pirate attacks occurred off the coast of the Horn of Africa, where also the majority of casualties were made.[1]

More Violence

The PRC has also registered a dramatic escalation in violence. The number of attacks, in which firearms were used, rose more than 200 percent in comparison to the same period a year ago.[2] In the wings of last week's Interpol General Assembly in Singapore, experts confirmed that pirates are not only better organized and operating further from the shore, but that they are also acquiring weapons with more firepower. This is not the only reason why numerous specialists are questioning the efficiency of this naval intervention. Somalia's commissioner of police said: "I can't say that up to now there has been any progress about piracy," and pointed to the fact that the pirates' bases of retreat on Somali territory are completely inaccessible to the most basic police units.[3]

Social Causes

Totally neglected is the fact that the social causes for piracy evolving have been perpetuated unabated. The buccaneering at the Horn of Africa first became relevant in the aftermath of Somalia's breakup, when foreign fishing ships plundered the Somali coastal waters, and a group of Somalis unsuccessfully sought to redevelop a coast guard. The weapons they had acquired for this purpose facilitated their transition to piracy.[4] The continued overfishing of their coastal waters, including by ships from Western countries, robs the Somali population of their, already extremely precarious, means of livelihood. Today some pirates are taking in millions, by capturing EU fishing vessels off the Somali coast and freeing the personnel after ransom is paid. France has begun protecting French fishing vessels directly with warships.

Sink Ships

But the Western military intervention is succeeding in undermining international maritime law. For example, last week a Bundeswehr helicopter, firing warning shots from its mounted machineguns, stopped three ships in the vicinity of the Seychelles islands. The German navy claims that the eleven passengers threw objects overboard, allegedly also a handgun. After searching the three boats, the Bundeswehr reported, "no weapons were found" but rather "ten barrels of fuel indicating they were engaged in piracy".[5] Because of this fuel, the German soldiers forced the eleven passengers to get on one of the three boats and let them continue their journey and sank the other two boats. According to press reports, this type of "operation is now being used in cases, where it cannot be proven beyond a doubt that apprehended suspected pirates were attempting an attack."[6] The lack of proof makes judicial prosecution impossible. The German Navy is therefore applying arbitrary punishment based solely on suspicion. The Bundeswehr is actually making a mockery of international law that includes the right to free navigation, regardless of the origin or equipment of the persons at sea.

Seaman Killed

This type of operation takes fatalities for granted. In early September, the frigate "Brandenburg" tried to halt a boat. Following warning shots, the German soldiers, using machineguns, opened fire on the boat, killing one of the seamen. Berlin declared that there was "enough suspicion" that those who had survived were "engaged in piracy" and demanded that they be put on trial in Kenya. But the EU operational headquarters rejected this demand, assuming that it was unlikely that a Kenyan court would find them guilty. There were no repercussions for the deadly fire. The states attorney in Potsdam renounced opening an investigation, without explanation.[7]

As in the Mediterranean

The enforcement of the arbitrary right of might by the German navy in cooperation with the EU, off the East African coast resembles EU warships' operations in the Mediterranean, restricting, de facto, the right to free navigation - in any case for persons trying to flee to Europe by boat. Already two years ago, a legal expertise, commissioned by human rights organizations, found that it is illegal to "turn back, escort back, prevent from traveling on, tow back or transport to non-EU coastal regions" migrants at sea.[8] In spite of the obvious illegality of such operations, the EU states are continuing to regulate navigation as they wish - in Somalia, as in the Mediterranean, and in the future most likely on other seas.

[1], [2] Unprecedented increase in Somali pirate activity; 21.10.2009
[3] No Progress on Piracy, Somali Police Chief Says; The New York Times 14.10.2009
[4] see also Sink Immediately
[5] EU NAVFOR ATALANTA - Fregatte Bremen stoppt mutmaßliche Piraten; 13.10.2009
[6], [7] Mutmaßliche Piraten freigelassen; Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 15.10.2009. See also Off the Coast of Yemen
[8] Andreas Fischer-Lescano, Tillmann Löhr: Rechtsgutachten: Menschen- und flüchtlingsrechtliche Anforderungen an Maßnahmen der Grenzkontrolle auf See, September 2007. See also Transitland unter Druck