Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Somali Pirates, Fishing, Waste Dumping, and the Failure of International Law

Look closely at any issue and you will find that it is likely more complex than initially thought. Rarely is it possible to find an easy solution or an explanation for any problem. For me, I try to understand issues by viewing them in context-how they are related to everything else. This method is based on the belief that the world is best viewed through the system of interactions and causal interrelations that make-up our day-to-day experiences and help determine our behavior.

Whenever I first heard about the Somali pirate situation, my wife turned to me and said that things like this just don't happen, there has to be a reason. "It is for money," I said.

Well I was right, but she was even more so. Since the last Somali government was overthrown in the 1980s or so, and after the UN went in to relieve the humanitarian situation in the early 1990s, there has been no effective government of that piece of land that covers the coast of the horn of Africa. Granted, we view it in too simplistic of a fashion, not recognizing that there are multiple authorities there (relatively stable Somaliland, Puntland, and the least stable and most violent Somalia that we hear about-the one with Mogadishu in it). Because there was no government to defend Somalia, other countries began to take advantage of the anarchy for their own profit, going to Somali coastal waters to fish without restrictions, to dump toxic waste, and to traffic people. These problems, though well documented by Western and local media, were not discussed before this incident, and are only now coming in tidbits from NPR and the BBC. These practices destroyed the livelihoods of fishermen and in so doing also the economies of the towns that depended on them. The lobster trade, for example, which was a very lucrative practice of fishing in Somalia and selling the lobsters to the states on the Arabian Peninsula, has been completely destroyed. The destruction of Africa is nothing new even though European countries no longer control territory on the continent. The waters off the coast of Africa have been drastically over fished by vessels from all over the world and have done so with impunity. Usually they do this by bribing officials for cheap fishing rights, but in Somalia, with no government, the infractions were even worse.

Enter the fisherman, already with boats. They are angry over the toxic waste dumping, over fishing, destruction of important lobster-baring reefs, and they began to take over foreign factory ships in protest. This practice awakens them to the possibility of huge profits through piracy so, with their livelihoods destroyed by these same vessels, they began to capture and ransom as many ships as possible. As they got better and richer, the sizes of the boats went up until today when they can hijack tankers.

My point here is not that the pirates are 100% justified in their actions, and not justified against international shipping (factory fishing ships are more ambiguous), though I believe that people have the right to defend their territory from exploitation when they do not have a government. This is a dangerous assertion I know, and it comes with many qualifiers. This argument could be used for the Minutemen in the border areas of the US and Mexico; however, I feel they qualify effectively as a hate group since their actions are motivated by xenophobia (and in some cases racism). Also, their livelihoods are not demonstrably in danger and they have arguably effective government representation. But I digress (again). My point comes down to this: the international community has a responsibility to respond when unrepresented people are threatened by exploitation. I personally look on this as proof (again) of corporations and countries generally being focused on their own self interest and that without proper regulation on an international scale, abuses will always be prevalent. These abuses occur with little uproar, but when the natural response to them occurs, the international community freaks out.

This case with piracy should be a wake-up call to the international community about the need to regulate and protect unprotected areas and people. Piracy is one response to injustice, terrorism-which in Somalia is funded by piracy-often arises as another. Like the drug trade destroying the fabric of society in places like Colombia, piracy does the same in Somalia and the initial struggle is soon lost to be replaced by a lust for profit. This does not mean we should not analyze the initial causes to try and remove those as part of a process to combat lawlessness.

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