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US State Department Cites Progress in the Fight Against Piracy

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March 29, 2012

WASHINGTON — Piracy along the coast of Somalia threatens one of the fundamental foundations of an interconnected global economic system: freedom of navigation on the high seas, Assistant Secretary of State Andrew Shapiro says.

“In a globalized world, the impact of piracy in one area of the world can cause a ripple effect greater in magnitude than ever before,” Shapiro said March 27 in remarks at the Washington-based Center for American Progress, a public policy research center.

According to maritime agencies, there were 439 piracy attacks worldwide in 2011, and more than half were by Somali-based pirates operating in the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean and off areas near the coast of Oman. But those figures have begun showing a downward trend because of the growing, collaborative international response. The impact of Somali piracy on the global economy was estimated to be approximately $7 billion in 2011 and between $7 billion and $12 billion in 2010, based on the most recent detailed estimates by international maritime groups.

“By preying on commercial ships in one of the world’s most traversed shipping lanes, pirates off the Horn of Africa threaten more than just individual ships,” Shapiro said. “They threaten a central artery of the global economy, and therefore global security and stability.”

Shapiro, who is the assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, said that in 2007 and 2008, pirate attacks along the coast of Somalia escalated dramatically. Thereafter, a reinforcing cycle began forming, in part motivated by ever-increasing ransom payments to recover crews and cargo. Piracy went from being a loosely defined, ad hoc effort to a highly developed transnational criminal enterprise.

Pirates use high-speed skiffs and ladders or grappling hooks to board commercial cargo ships and leisure craft, seize the crew and cargo and hold them for ransom. The ransoms currently average about $4.5 million per incident and have reached as high as $12 million, Shapiro said. The smaller skiffs are often supported by much larger mother ships that can support numerous smaller pirate vessels for extended periods. Currently, navy ships from the European Union, NATO, the United States, China, Japan, Russia, India and other nations actively patrol the region to interdict pirates and prevent or stop attacks.

The United States is opposed to paying ransom in these hijacking incidents.

Somali pirates now operate in a total sea space of approximately 2.5 million square nautical miles — an area equal to the size of the continental United States, Shapiro said, and they reach as far as the waters off the coast of India.

Shapiro said piracy in this area of the world is a prime example of the problems associated with ungoverned spaces. He said the pirates operate from the coastal areas in Puntland state and parts of central Somalia where the lack of governance and weak governmental institutions provide the criminals with a safe haven.

However, Shapiro said, with international cooperation there are signs of clear progress, and the number of attacks in 2011 actually fell by nearly half. In January 2011, Somali pirates held 31 ships and 710 hostages, but by March this year, pirates held eight ships and 213 hostages, which reflects a 70 percent decline in the area around Somalia.

Shapiro said the United States is pursuing an integrated approach to combating maritime piracy that focuses on:

  • Engaging diplomatically to spur collective international action.
  • Expanding security on the high seas through the use of naval ships to defend private vessels and disrupt pirate attacks.
  • Preventing attacks by encouraging industry to take steps to protect itself.
  • Deterring piracy through legal prosecution and imprisonment.
  • Debilitating the networks that support piracy.

Shapiro said the United States from the beginning adopted a multilateral approach to maritime piracy, and in January 2009 helped to establish the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia to coordinate the international response. The Contact Group membership is voluntary and was established concurrent with the U.N. Security Council’s Resolution 1851 that addressed maritime piracy. He said the group now includes more than 70 nations and international and maritime industry organizations to help coordinate national and internal counterpiracy policies and actions.

“Our response to piracy is an example of how we are seeking to lead in new ways, by reaching out to new actors, building new kinds of partnerships and coalitions,” Shapiro said. “American diplomatic engagement and leadership on piracy has helped catalyze the action of others so that the burden of maintaining global stability is shared.”

However, Shapiro emphasized that the only long-term response to piracy is the re-establishment of stability, responsive law enforcement and adequate governance in Somalia.

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