Somali Pirates=Environmental Avengers?

| Tue Apr. 14, 2009 10:25 AM EDT

Tuesday's Washington Post features a narrative of how Navy SEAL snipers dispatched three Somali pirates to free Richard Philips, their hostage and captain of the Maersk Alabama. In the hours following the operation, pundits hailed it as a master stroke, a surefire way (pun intended) to convince pirates that American vessels are not to be trifled with. Are they right? Certainly not. Yes, hostage-taking is a no-no and must be dealt with aggressively, but in a desperate and anarchic place like Somalia, it's unlikely that the deaths of three low-level criminals are going to do anything at all to alter the big picture--except, of course, to make it bloodier for everyone involved.

Until now, the motivation of Somali pirates has been clear: they want money. But shooting pirates who hitherto had shown little desire to kill their captives so much as ransom them off will likely change their calculations. Already one pirate leader has said that the next time he takes a US-flagged ship, the crew is as good as dead. That doesn't sound like a man cowering in the face of American power.

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Instead, if Western nations hope to lessen the number of hijackings (four more ships were taken today), they'll have to attack the root of the problem: the lawlessness and poverty ashore, not the fishermen-turned-criminals at sea. A good start would be to stop dumping radioactive waste and poisoness chemicals off the Somali coast. From Johann Hari's column in the Independent (UK):

As soon as the government was gone, mysterious European ships started appearing off the coast of Somalia, dumping vast barrels into the ocean. The coastal population began to sicken. At first they suffered strange rashes, nausea and malformed babies. Then, after the 2005 tsunami, hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than 300 died.

Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN envoy to Somalia, tells me: "Somebody is dumping nuclear material here. There is also lead, and heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury – you name it." Much of it can be traced back to European hospitals and factories, who seem to be passing it on to the Italian mafia to "dispose" of cheaply. When I asked Mr Ould-Abdallah what European governments were doing about it, he said with a sigh: "Nothing. There has been no clean-up, no compensation, and no prevention."

We might also consider doing something to halt poaching by international fishing trawlers in Somalia's terroritorial waters--a fact that explains the surge in vigilantism among Somali's starving fishermen. As Hari continues: 

At the same time, other European ships have been looting Somalia's seas of their greatest resource: seafood. We have destroyed our own fish stocks by overexploitation – and now we have moved on to theirs. More than $300m-worth of tuna, shrimp, and lobster are being stolen every year by illegal trawlers. The local fishermen are now starving. Mohammed Hussein, a fisherman in the town of Marka 100km south of Mogadishu, told Reuters: "If nothing is done, there soon won't be much fish left in our coastal waters."

This is the context in which the "pirates" have emerged. Somalian fishermen took speedboats to try to dissuade the dumpers and trawlers, or at least levy a "tax" on them. They call themselves the Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia – and ordinary Somalis agree. The independent Somalian news site WardheerNews found 70 per cent "strongly supported the piracy as a form of national defence".

Of course, a real solution to the piracy problem would require the West to acknowledge some responsibility for what's happened to Somalia and to take serious measures to tackle the morass of structural problems that have blighted the lives of Somalis for decades and plunged their society into the abyss. Then again, maybe it's easier just to keep pulling the trigger. Who wants to bet which option will win out?