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article imageOp-Ed: Lessons from the EU’s unlikely success in the war against piracy

By Matthew Turner     Feb 5, 2015 in Politics
Brussels - Remember how just a few years ago one of the most pressing issue to world peace and security seemed to be the sundry band of pirates off the coast of Somalia that was wreaking havoc across the Gulf of Aden by pillaging and plundering trade lanes?
Newspapers were racing to warn readers about the billions lost to the world economy by piracy while pundits debated whether the agitators could blockade the Suez Canal, predicting a globalization of piracy and a return to the bygone age of buccaneers. Luckily, such threats are now moot, and it’s largely the merit of the European Union.
Alas, rarely does Brussels get the credit it deserves. But thanks to its ambitious naval operation Atalanta, named after a Greek virgin hunter, pirate attacks have fallen by a whopping 90 percent since 2010. It has been more than two years since a ship was successfully boarded. Deployed in 2008 at the request of the UN Security Council, Atalanta was the first maritime military mission launched by the EU and quickly became one of Brussels’ rare success stories. Initially scheduled to last one year, it has been extended multiple times, most recently on November 21 until December 2016.
Back in 2008, few thought piracy could be stymied in Africa. Attacks were occurring on an almost daily basis in an area close to twice the size of mainland Europe, stretching in an arc from Yemen’s coast to the Seychelles islands in the south and skirting Pakistan’s territorial waters in the east. As early as 2006, the International Maritime Organization had outlined in the Gulf of Aden a recommended corridor 200 miles away from the coast of Somalia, hoping to curtail attacks. Versatile as ever, Somali pirates reacted by multiplying and constantly improving their board-and-hijack techniques, with some attacks lasting as short as 20 minutes.
What was an isolated phenomenon at the turn of the millennium became a global threat in less than a decade. Just in 2010, the World Bank estimated that Somali piracy cost the global economy an estimated $18 billion. Faced with little resistance and growing political uncertainties in the Horn of Africa, piracy expanded in scope. Apart from targeting merchant ships, piracy morphed into a severe humanitarian problem. The shipments of aid disbursed by the World Food Program (WFP), which were the only thing keeping millions of Somalis from severe hunger, became increasingly targeted after 2007. Avoiding a cataclysmic collapse of the already feeble Somali state topped the agenda of the UN, as Western states started escorting convoys through the treacherous Gulf of Aden. It soon became apparent that a unified response to this common problem was needed.
Area of extent
Area of extent
Global Panorama
In October 2008, NATO launched the humanitarian operation “Allied Provider”, tasked with patrolling the vulnerable areas off the Horn of Africa. But in a surprising turn of events, the Europeans broke ranks with Washington and, under the impetus of France, who held the rotating presidency of the Union, decided to launch a separate, wider operation, EU-NAVFOR Atalanta, in November 2008. While the US-led coalition would be conducting hard military tasks, the EU’s mission took responsibility for securing WFP shipments, mindful of what they saw as insufficient human rights protection in Washington’s operation. Russia and China soon followed with similar deployments.
By 2009, the world was witnessing an unprecedented event in the years following the Second World War: all five permanent members of the UNSC had forces deployed on the same side. In a awkward display of unintended cooperation, all five members are using the port facilities offered by the impoverished dictatorship of Djibouti – a country jammed between Somalia and Eritrea in the Horn of Africa, ruled by local strongman Ismail Omar Guelleh, who skillfully wagered his country’s strategic position with the G-5 to cling on to power, gathering accolades from the West and expanding the coffers of the Treasury. Few seemed to care about Djibouti’s atrocious human rights record, which includes torture, arbitrary arrests or persecution of political opponents, and now the country’s strategic position serves as the main driver of Guelleh’s hold on power.
Big numbers, little praise
Under Atalanta’s watch, 154 pirates were captured and attacks went down from a high of 176 in 2011 to just two in 2014. Almost a million tons of WFP aid were escorted to their destination.
With the piracy threat subsiding year after year, the EU decided to expand the remit of its involvement in the Horn of Africa in 2011 and deployed a capacity building mission (NESTOR) with the purpose of enhancing the navies of neighboring nations. Nevertheless, despite this lull in buccaneering, there is now need more than ever for a sustained military presence in the region. The number of Somalis in need of emergency food aid has risen by more than 20 percent since January. The WFP recognized that the presence of military escorts has discouraged pirates, but called on the international community not to waver in its commitments as over 2 million more Somalis are “struggling to meet their minimum food requirements”.
Even if the sea lines were made secure, the root problem is far from being solved: as long as Somalia remains a war-torn failed state, with a powerless government and with no economic alternatives to piracy, the issue will never be rooted out. As the Council pointed out, “the pirate business model is fractured but not broken”.
The merits of the operation should not be downplayed — it’s a poignant example of Member States pooling together their resources and speaking with one voice instead of whispering with 28 different ones. Indeed, Atalanta rightfully deserves to be held as a rare success of European integration and should serve as a blueprint for future foreign policy operations
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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