Maritime piracy in Africa: A case study of the Gulf of Aden, Somalia

In view of the threat it poses for international maritime traffic, the surge of maritime piracy acts in the course of 2008 in the horn of Africa is raising concern among the international community which is mobilizing in order to face the scourge.

According to the International Maritime Bureau, the phenomenon is taking the dramatic proportions of an act of war. Indeed, an intensification in the nature of these acts has been noticed along with growing violence, an extension of the scope of assaults, a significant rise in the number of ships which came under attack, of hostages taken and of the ransoms required for their release.

Somali pirate attacks between 2005 and 2010 © Sémhur, CC BY-SA 3.0

Maritime piracy in Africa: The Gulf of Aden

Due to the lingering political instability of the African region, the conventional pattern of coastal maritime piracy, practiced by a population of fishermen, has progressed in recent years into a lucrative business endowed with big resources.

Funds are being invested to finance ships outfitted with heavy weapons, networks are being set up to coordinate information exchange and organize transactions while commandos are being trained in special training camps.

During the three first quarters of the year 2008, 94 maritime piracy acts in the Gulf of Aden have been reported. According to the latest figures, it is estimated that 18 ships are being seized and 330 people are taken hostage in the area.

This criminal activity has multiple and far-reaching effects on maritime trade, with a substantive rise in the costs of goods carriage by sea and insurance premiums because of the extension of the area and risk exacerbation.

Some maritime companies are paying additional risk premiums to their crews; others are compelled to pay ransoms for their release. So far, ransom sums have amounted to about 1 to 2 million USD. Such sums are likely to be revised upwards according to the size of the catch.

Apart from the negative economic impact on neighboring countries, namely Egypt, in case the Suez Canal came to be closed down, maritime piracy showcases enormous risks for the environment.

Maritime piracy in Africa: Boarding of the Sirius Star

Photo credit: U.S. Navy / 2nd Class William S. StevensOwned by the Saudi oil company ARAMCO, the super tanker, alone, costs 100 million USD. Its cargo of 2 million barrels in oil is estimated at 120 million USD. In the event of a claim, insurers estimate damages due to a possible pollution at about 100 million USD. The total cost of a claim may, therefore, amount to 300 million USD.

Following the boarding of the Saudi super tanker Sirius Star, by Somali pirates, Arab countries neighboring the Red Sea (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Yemen) met on November 20, 2008 in Cairo to examine ways of combating piracy and improving the safeness of maritime transport.

Maritime piracy in Africa: Means to prevent and to combat the phenomenon

Legal principles

In the event of an act of characterized piracy, international law authorizes any state, concerned or not, to prosecute and reprimand acts and perpetrators, to seize ship and apprehend persons on board. 

Concretely speaking, military or police ships are authorized to pursue and intervene, if possible, so as to ensure maritime safety.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy / 2nd Class Jason R. Zalasky (modified picture)Acts of piracy also give rise to the states' “universal competency”. This “competency” allows the establishment of cooperation regarding the extradition of the culprits towards the country in charge of their trial. Legal provisions have been put forth by the international community with a view to combating maritime piracy:

  • December 12, 2002: The International Scheme for the Protection of Ships (ISPS) has been adopted by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). This text defines the rules and counseling designed to reduce ships' exposure to terrorist risks.
  • July 2005: The Regional Maritime Security Initiative (RMSI) was adopted by states adjacent to the Malacca Strait. This scheme allowed joint efforts aimed at consolidating patrols to ensure a coordinated surveillance of the area. As the number of accidents has been halved, the Malacca Strait is no longer listed as “hazardous maritime route” since October 2006.
  • September 19, 2008: The coordination cell of the European Union (EU NAVCO) has proposed escort to ships vulnerable to maritime piracy in the Gulf of Aden. It consists of a team on board the merchant ship and of a close escort provided by a military ship.
  • October 7, 2008: The United Nations Security Council's 1838 resolution provides for the deployment of war ships and air support to combat maritime piracy along the coasts of Somalia. It calls for further coordination not only among states but also among regional organizations. It calls upon states to ensure the “protection of the maritime convoys for the World Food program”.
  • November 10, 2008: Atalanta Operation, decided by the European Union was launched on Somali shores on December 8, 2008. It is designed to provide protection for the ships of the World Food Program (WFP), to protect vulnerable ships sailing along the Somali shores, to dissuade, prevent and repress acts of piracy in international waters as well as in Somali territorial waters.

Solutions and alternative routes

In light of the growing dangers of maritime piracy, ship owners and shipping companies are adopting various measures whose efficiency is not yet proven.

Some companies are organizing training sessions for the benefit of captains and crews on the management of such crises. Others are envisaging to make recourse to private security companies. Apart from its exorbitant cost (about 60 000 USD per voyage), recourse to armed agents on board of ships may stand as an additional risk to commit to the ship owner's third party liability.

Finally, some professionals have resorted to a radical solution which consists in changing the itineraries of the ships by taking the “Cape route”, which bypasses Africa and thus extends the voyage by 8 to 10 days.

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