Monday, September 14, 2009

Fighting piracy off the coast of Somalia: 'This is not a magic bullet'

By John Heilprin

An informal band of nations and organisations fighting piracy off the coast of Somalia have agreed to set up two new international funds to help pay the cost of prosecutions and beefed-up security.

Japan is contributing $14-million (about R106-million) to create "regional centres" in Djibouti, Kenya, Ethiopia and other places for information-sharing and pooling of other pirate-fighting resources.

The hope is that other countries, too, will add money to the new donor fund set up through the International Maritime Organisation, a British-based UN agency with 168 member nations that oversees shipping safety and security.

A new UN-administered international trust fund also is being set up, with Germany and Norway becoming the first to pledge hundreds of thousands of dollars to it to help pay for transporting witnesses, collecting evidence and other costs of prosecuting pirates that the IMO is prohibited from covering.

"This is not a magic bullet. It does not solve all the problems of piracy, but it's an important step forward in the comprehensive approach that we're trying to get," Thomas Countryman, a US State Department principal deputy assistant secretary leading the effort, said on Thursday night.

Informally organised by the United States, the so-called "Contact Group" on Somali piracy met all day in a closed chamber at UN headquarters to discuss financing for prosecutions, coordination of international naval patrols and how to prevent money-laundering and discourage governments and shipping companies from paying ransoms to pirates.

So far this year there have been more than 150 pirate attacks off the Horn of Africa, a 50 percent increase over last year's total, said Masafumi Ishii, a Japanese Foreign Ministry ambassador who oversaw Thursday's meeting.

"As the monsoon season is about to end, we expect even a sharper increase of the pirate attacks," Ishii predicted.

Sailors are typically released from captured ships along Somalia's lawless coastline only after payment of a multimillion dollar ransom.

Since its creation early this year the group has expanded to include 45 nations and nine other organisations and shipping representatives, up from 28 less than four months ago. It next meets in January.

Sharp divisions have emerged within the group over whether to set up an international criminal tribunal for the Somali pirates, mainly ex-fishermen coping with the chaos wrought by Somalia's 18-year civil war who have stumbled into vastly more lucrative work.

Germany and Russia proposed the idea, arguing that a tribunal should have a regional focus and be closely coordinated with the African Union. The U.S. opposes the idea, because it wants legal control over pirates who attack American vessels.

In April, the crew of the US-flagged Maersk Alabama battled pirates on the deck until the captain, Richard Phillips, offered himself as hostage. Phillips was freed after five days held hostage in a lifeboat when US Navy Seal snipers killed three of his captors.

A Somali teenager, Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse, who was the only pirate to survive the siege, was indicted in May in a US federal court on multiple piracy charges and has been jailed in New York.

Somalia also opposes the idea of a new tribunal, because it wants to host the prosecutions. "At the end of the day if we do not establish law and order in the country ... pirates will continue," said Somalia's Deputy UN Ambassador Idd Beddel Mohamed.

In reality, though, Kenya is the only place set up to handle most of the cases for the time being. Countryman said the US is helping Kenya bolster its ability to prosecute pirates in its national courts and that the new trust fund "perhaps would most immediately help Kenya, but it is in no way limited to helping Kenya. It should help other countries."