Dienstag, 11. Januar 2011

Piracy off the Shore of Somalia – Once Again Misread

Birgit Mahnkopf has argued in a recent issue of the Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft [pdf] that piracy off the coast of Somalia is part of the “new scramble on[sic!] Africa.” She fails to give any evidence for that thesis, but what is equally important is that she has a fairly strange way to argue and that much of her argument is resting on a simply incomplete reading of the situation.

Not that I disagree with the notion that combating piracy is primarily a policing issue, as Mahnkopf argues. It certainly is. But arguing that the United Nations Security Council broke norms when authorising hot pursuit to apprehend pirates in Somali territorial waters is more problematic than Mahnkopf acknowledges. For one thing, the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia has invited the UN to do just that (something Mahnkopf conveniently fails to mention at all). For another, it is the United Nations Security Councils job to re-interpret international norms. Take the issue of Somalia: When the United Nations Security Council in 1992 authorised the UNITAF-intervention in Somalia it did so arguing that the famine in Somalia was a danger to international peace. It was the first time the UNSC ever decided to make a famine an issue of peace. Bottom line here is that the UNSC is well within the limits of its authority to interpret international law as it did.

More to the point: Mahnkopf argues that in international security circles a connection between piracy and terrorism has been made that is misleading since no such connection is proven. That simply is not true, or at least not as widespread an argument as she wants us to believe. There is, however, a distinction between al-Shabaab (Somalia's current Islamist militia) and the Union of Islamic Courts (al-Shabaabs predecessor that was defeated in 2006 by an Ethiopian intervention force). It is not al-Shabaab that has denounced piracy, as Mahnkopf argues, but the Union. Al-Shabaabs position on piracy is less clear. Though there is reason to suspect that al-Shabaab is also condemning piracy, we simply do not know for sure.

Mahnkopf argues that piracy and the international community's efforts to fight it have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. How does she back that up? She points out, correctly, that the number of pirate attacks has increased despite the presence of four different naval groups in the region. But that, I am afraid, doesn't make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. The number of pirate attacks could well have sky-rocketed without any naval presence. Arguing, as she does, that the presence of navy vessels does not deter pirates is simply speculative.

I also take issue with the potential scenarios she is describing. The international naval presence, she argues, could motivate pirate gangs to seek cooperation with al-Shabaab or organised crime syndicates and finally trigger a move to re-register ships, and turn captured ships into what is known in security circles as phantom ships, as happened in the late 1990s in South-east Asia. But that’s utter nonsense. The environment in South-east Asia allowed for hiding even large ships, the Somali coastline simply does not. There are quite a number of other points I take issue with (backing up your argument with data from 2005 for one thing) and some of her ideological underpinnings are simply nonsense as well (if an African government sells fishing-licenses to a European company that might well be damn stupid, but it is not, as Mahnkopf argues, neocolonialism).

Here, finally, we have arrived at the juicy part. Mahnkopf argues that because the official arguments for combating piracy do not make any sense (that is to her), it has to be about the global power balance. Honestly, I do not know how often I have encountered that sort of argument: Since A (i.e. combating piracy) cannot be the motivation it has to be B (i.e. geopolitics). How the hell are we to operate with such conclusions? What about C (lets say, for the sake of argument, safeguarding globalisation) and D (for instance incremental factors or perhaps opportunities for cooperation between US and Chinese navies)? What Mahnkopf is doing is simply not science of any sort, its irresponsible journalism that insinuates rather than argues.

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