Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Piracy in 2010

The International Maritime Bureau's Piracy Reporting Centre has just released its report on piracy during the year 2010. As anyone who's followed the issue might guess, it was another record for maritime violence, continuing the trend toward more attacks (up 10% over 2009, and the fourth straight year of increase), and especially more ships (53) and hostages taken (1,188), with the locus of activity still the waters off the Horn of Africa, particularly where the more serious attacks are concerned.

Until the spike in activity off Somalia, hijackings were a very rare occurrence, even as piracy increased through the 1990s and early 2000s (developments in which Somalia was also prominent). Now they occur almost weekly, and involve unprecedently large prizes (like supertankers, where '90s-era hijackings involved freighters displacing just a few thousand tons), events which far exceeded the most dramatic projections I remember encountering when I first looked at the issue a decade ago.

This all goes on in spite of widespread awareness of the problem and precautions taken to avoid it, as well as the presence of a massive, active international naval force in the area. It is the position of the Centre's Director, Captain Pottengal Mukundan, that the force has deterred a still larger number of attacks, and it is worth noting that incidents in the Gulf of Aden fell off by half in 2010 (down to 53 from 117 the year before)--as well as the fact that the pirates are venturing further out to continue their business:
In December 2010, they reached as far south as the Mozambique Channel and as far east as 72° East longitude in the Indian Ocean, an operating range IMB says is unprecedented.
Put another way, they are capable of operating (to some extent) all over the whole western half of the Indian Ocean, and the intensity of their operations is something not seen since the nineteenth century.

A significant factor, of course, is something about which naval patrols do very little--namely, the situation onshore. Pirates operating on any scale (let alone the formidable scale that permits attacks on ships 1,000 miles away from home, and the holding of dozens of ships and hundreds of sailors for ransom at once, as has become routine) simply can't function without bases onshore. In recent years, pirates have generally found bases where states situated along strategic sea lanes have collapsed. Just as the turmoil Indonesia went through in the late 1990s had much to do with a spike in piracy in its region, the collapse of Somalia (a country with a nearly 1,900 mile-long coastline at the southern end of the Red Sea) at the Cold War's end made the country a locus of piratical activity. Unfortunately, a stable, functional Somalia still seems quite a ways off--while the pressures that drive states to failure seem likely to get worse in the years to come as demographic, resource and climatic pressures weigh all the more heavily on the international system.

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