Piracy: navigating the dark side of globalisation

There is a dark side to globalisation, yet the losers rarely get their moment in the spotlight. Recently however, attention has become fixed on a particularly disenfranchised group: Somali pirates. Their story is a good illustration of some of the worst relations forged by globalisation.

Paul Brannigan
9 December 2013

Somalis are tried for piracy in Rome, March 2012. Demotix/Stefano Montesi. All rights reserved.

Piracy is by no means a new phenomenon, and its history is testament to the view that the world has been globalised in some form or another for millennia. In the first century BCE, North African pirates were such a nuisance to Mediterranean trade that the Roman general Pompey the Great led a successful campaign against them and eradicated piracy in the region within forty days. In the early modern period, privateers in the employ of European states preyed on rival empires’ merchant vessels, seafaring manifestations of the period’s characteristic cut-throat mercantilism. Modern piracy can be seen as a continuation of this - the latest incarnation of a livelihood of feeding off global trade, now tinged with desperation, with modern globalisation putting advanced technologies and firepower into the hands of amateurs.

The shipping lanes off the coasts of the Horn of Africa, West Africa and in the Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and Indonesia are the veins and arteries of the globalised economy, where north and south, east and west, collide. Freighters are slow, heavy with cargo, and generally manned by just a handful of crew. Unsurprisingly, they are considered an excellent opportunity by enterprising criminals. Even if the cargo is worthless, a hijacked ship can be quickly sold on the black market for hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes to smugglers – one criminal industry feeding another. Though greater naval presence in international waters has decreased attacks, in 2013 so far there have been 188 piracy incidents around the world, with 266 people taken hostage.

To view pirates as simply criminals, however, is an over-simplification that papers over the socio-economic conditions that cause people to resort to this dangerous activity. Somalia, for example, has been without an effective state apparatus ever since civil war broke out in 1991, devastating the country. Warlords take advantage of this fragmentation to run criminal proto-empires, one of the offshoots being piracy. Pirate networks take over the existing (but ailing) clan structure of Somali communities to force co-operation with their enterprise, and there is evidence that pirate gangs even coerce children under the age of fifteen to take part in raids.

The lack of Somali sovereignty has also been taken advantage of by international actors. Vessels flying Asian and European flags happily participate in irregular fishing activity in Somali waters, undermining the livelihoods of local fishing communities. Worse still, there are reports of foreign ships dumping toxic waste in these same waters. The absence of a Somali state means there is no domestic navy or coastguard to deter this, and these activities beget more corruption as warlords enrich themselves by running protection rackets and selling false permits. Here the tragedy of the failed state meets the tragedy of the commons: without the protective mantle of sovereignty, Somalia leaves itself wide open to be gutted by corner-cutting private interests, at the expense of the environment and the communities who depend on it for survival, who then turn to piracy and associated activities out of desperation in a vicious and destructive circle.

Technology is key to pirates’ operations, utilising a sophisticated array of GPS, radar and satellite telephones to track down potential targets and communicate with each other across vast expanses of ocean. These are gutted from previously hijacked vessels or acquired in commercial centres such as Mogadishu. Somali pirates are usually heavily armed with sub-machine guns, the majority of which originate from nearby Yemen. For all this technology, piracy is still an extremely dangerous activity, as the participants track freighters in small but swift skiffs that can be easily overwhelmed by the rough Indian ocean. There are no figures for numbers of pirates lost at sea, but an estimated 200-300 have not returned from sea as of mid-2011. There is a bitter irony in that the fruits of globalisation – technology, free international trade – have been turned into weapons against the globalised economy by those whom globalisation has failed. There is perhaps no better illustration of the dark side of globalisation than the deadly juxtaposition of hungry, qat-chewing men toting Kalashnikovs and computerised navigational technology.

Internationally, the Horn of Africa isn’t even the most dangerous region for piracy. That prize goes to the South-East Asian archipelago of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, the narrow passes between islands seeing far more piracy attacks per year than anywhere else. Yet Somali piracy continues to take centre-stage in the western public consciousness, which reserves a special type of panic for pirates and terrorists – bandits who operate outside the norms of the civilised, global world. Like all crimes, however, piracy should be understood in terms of its socio-economic causes. It may be easy for the world’s navies to follow Pompey in cracking down on pirate operations off Somalia, but this will not resolve the root cause of the crime. If piracy is to be properly addressed, globalisation must first work for Somalia.

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