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Somali Pirate Code of Conduct

Ever since I was a kid, I found pirates interesting and exotic and adventurous. The truth is probably that those olden day pirates had bad teeth, scurvey – they had lived hard and fast and they probably aged quickly.

Of course, today we have Johnie Depp and the Pirates of the Caribbean series, which makes pirating look mostly like a lot of fun.

So a year or so ago, I wrote a post on the Somali pirates, and got an interesting response. It got me started looking more deeply into what is going on with the pirates there.

somalia

Yesterday, in the paper was an article about the Somali pirate code of conduct – with fines and punishments for infractions. I found a complete article in Newsweek, April 27.

What is bothering me now is that the one pirate captured by the US when it retook the captured US freighter (in the report filed by one BBC reporter) said he was just a frail teenager, a kid, and that the pirates had already agreed to surrender when they were blown out of the water. You could hear her attempting to control her rage.

I know it is a thorn in the side for all shippers and freighters and passenger ships who travel through waters anywhere near to Somalia. And yet . . . I kind of ask myself what the options are? Somalia is a for sure failed-nation. They haven’t been able to cobble together a government for over twenty years. Deadly, long lasting poisons have been dumped along their shoreline – and major industrial nations paid Somalis a pittance to dump their wastes there. Their coastline has been overfished. Families are starving, live is – or was – dismal.

I think it is pretty cool that they developed an enforceable – and enforced – code of conduct.

Here is the article from Newsweek:

It was a hit with the U.S. public, but president Obama’s decision to authorize the Pentagon to kill three Somali pirates who took an American sea captain hostage sent shudders through the world’s shipping and insurance industries. Because the pirates are motivated chiefly by money, maritime experts say, they have—at least until now—taken good care of the crews they hold captive. A document retrieved from a ship hijacked last year contained a “list of written rules” of conduct pirates had to follow, according to a maritime security expert who requested anonymity when discussing sensitive material. The document included a series of “punishments” to be imposed on any hijacker who struck a hostage.

Shipping companies and insurers are far more likely to fork over large ransoms if they have confidence that their personnel and cargo will be released unharmed, and while the scourge of piracy has been disruptive, so far there have been virtually no casualties among innocent people. According to estimates, there were 111 pirate attacks off the Somali coast in 2008; 42 were successful, resulting in the capture of 815 seamen. As of last week, according to one estimate, all but 37 had been released, and two had died—one reportedly of illness. Experts say the rate of attacks has increased sharply this year, and “the more [authorities] shoot, the more the pirates will shoot back,” says Tom Wilson, a Somalia analyst for the British consulting firm Control Risks.

Protecting the 23,000 merchant vessels sailing annually near the Horn of Africa would require a naval fleet of at least 60 ships, according to U.S. government and private experts; the existing international antipiracy task force has about 20. And attacking the Somali coastal villages where the pirates are based could potentially radicalize generations of Somalis. “That would be a 19th-century solution,” says Neil Roberts, a marine insurance expert with Lloyd’s Market Association in London. Industry experts say the only solution to piracy is the creation of a viable Somali government back on dry land.

According to industry officials, ransom demands have ranged as high as $25 million—but in most cases they are negotiated down to about $2 million to $3 million, and insurers then pay out claims to the shipping companies. As hijackings have increased in frequency, pirates have become fussier about how their money gets delivered. Initially, said a shipping-industry source who also asked for anonymity, ransoms were often handed off to shady Somali expats in places like Kenya. After Kenyan authorities cracked down, the pirates began insisting on airdrops via parachute into the ocean near Somali coastal villages, where they have cash-counting machines ready. Until the U.S. opened fire, one of the pirates’ biggest headaches had been dealing with the sheer volume of money they’ve collected. Last year, according to an insurance-industry official, one pirate’s boat capsized because he had overloaded it with cash.

I found this on National Post dated April 30, 2009; it is a copy of what I had read in the newspaper:

MOGADISHU — A mobile tribunal, a system of fines and a code of conduct: the success of Somali pirates’ seajacking business relies on a structure that makes them one of the country’s best-organised armed forces.

A far cry from the image conveyed in films and novels of pirates as unruly swashbucklers, Somalia’s modern-day buccaneers form a paramilitary brotherhood in which a strict and complex system of rules and punishments is enforced.

They are organized in a multitude of small cells dotting the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden coastline. The two main land bases are the towns of Eyl, in the breakaway state of Puntland, and Harardhere, further south in Somalia.

“There are hundreds of small cells, linked to each other,” Hasan Shukri, a pirate based in Haradhere, told AFP in a phone interview.

“We talk every morning, exchange information on what is happening at sea and if there has been a hijacking, we make onshore preparations to send out reinforcement and escort the captured ship closer to the coast,” he explained.

Somali piracy started off two decades ago with a more noble goal of deterring illegal fishing, protecting the people’s resources and the nation’s sovereignty at a time when the state was collapsing.

While today’s pirates have morphed into a sophisticated criminal ring with international ramifications, they have been careful to retain as much popular prestige as possible and refrain from the violent methods of the warlords who made Somalia a by-word for lawlessness in the 1990s.

“I have never seen gangs that have rules like these. They avoid many of the things that are all too common with other militias,” said Mohamed Sheikh Issa, an elder in the Eyl region.

“They don’t rape, and they don’t rob the hostages and they don’t kill them. They just wait for the ransom and always try to do it peacefully,” he said.

Somalia’s complex system of clan justice is often rendered obsolete by the armed chaos that has prevailed in the country for two decades, but the pirates have adapted it effectively.

Abdi Garad, an Eyl-based commander who was involved in recent attacks on U.S. ships, explained that the pirates have a mountain hide-out where leaders can confer and where internal differences can be solved.

“We have an impregnable stronghold and when there is a disagreement among us, all the pirate bosses gather there,” he told AFP.

The secretive pirate retreat is a place called Bedey, a few miles from Eyl.

“We have a kind of mobile court that is based in Bedey. Any pirate who commits a crime is charged and punished quickly because we have no jails to detain them,” Mr. Garad said.

Some groups representing different clans farther south in the villages of Hobyo and Haradhere would disagree with Mr. Garad’s claim that Somalia’s pirates all answer to a single authority.

But while differences remain among various groups, the pirates’ first set of rules is precisely aimed at neutralizing rivalries, Mohamed Hidig Dhegey, a pirate from Puntland, explained.

“If any one of us shoots and kills another, he will automatically be executed and his body thrown to the sharks,” he said from the town of Garowe.

“If a pirate injures another, he is immediately discharged and the network is instructed to isolate him. If one aims a gun at another, he loses 5% of his share of the ransom,” Mr. Dhegey said.

Perhaps the most striking disciplinary feature of Somali “piratehood” is the alleged code of conduct pertaining to the treatment of captured crews.

“Anybody who is caught engaging in robbery on the ship will be punished and banished for weeks. Anyone shooting a hostage will immediately be shot,” said Ahmed Ilkacase.

“I was once caught taking a wallet from a hostage. I had to give it back and then 25,000 dollars were removed from my share of the ransom,” he said.

Following the release of the French yacht Le Ponant in April 2008, investigators found a copy of a “good conduct guide” on the deck which forbade sexual assault on women hostages.

As Ilkacase found out for himself, pirates breaking internal rules are punished. Conversely, those displaying the most bravery are rewarded with a bigger share of the ransom, called “saami sare” in Somali.

“The first pirate to board a hijacked ship is entitled to a luxurious car, or a house or a wife. He can also decide to take his bonus share in cash,” he explained.

Foreign military commanders leading the growing fleet of anti-piracy naval missions plying the region in a bid to protect one of the world’s busiest trade routes acknowledge that pirates are very organised.

“They are very well organized, have good communication systems and rules of engagement,” said Vice Admiral Gerard Valin, commander of the French joint forces in the Indian Ocean.

So far, nothing suggests that pirates are motivated by anything other than money and it is unclear whether the only hostage to have died during a hijacking was killed by pirates or the French commandos who freed his ship.

Some acts of mistreatment have been reported during the more than 60 hijackings recorded since the start of 2008, but pirates have generally spared their hostages to focus on speedy ransom negotiations.

With the Robin Hood element of piracy already largely obsolete, observers say the “gentleman kidnapper” spirit could also fast taper off as pirates start to prioritize riskier, high-value targets and face increasingly robust action from navies with enhanced legal elbow room.

They have warned that the much-bandied heroics of a U.S. crew who wrested back control of their ship and had their captain rescued by navy snipers who picked off three pirates could go down as the day pirates decided to leave their manners at home.

I used to read science fiction novels about a diplomat named Retief, I think they were by Keith Laumer. He would find himself in an alien environment with a horrible unsolvable problem and he would find a great solution, where everyone walked away OK. I wish there were a Retief who could negotiate a win/win out of this situation.

May 1, 2009 Posted by | Adventure, Africa, Bureaucracy, Character, Crime, Cultural, Political Issues, Social Issues, Travel | , | 11 Comments