Piracy in the real world

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In the introduction to his 1985 book, Of Emperors and Pirates, the American professor, Noam Chomsky quotes St. Augustine narrating a dialogue between Alexander the Great and a pirate. “How dare you molest the seas?” demands Alexander. “How dare you molest the world?” replies the pirate. “Just because I do it with a little boat, I am called a pirate and you do it with a huge ship and you are called an emperor!” Who would have imagined that the episode narrated by St. Augustine centuries ago would apply so aptly in the twenty-first century. Piracy off the coast of Somalia has become big news recently, television footage adding drama to it. When Captain Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama was rescued by US naval personnel on April 12, the Americans went into an orgy of ecstasy thumping their chests that US destroyers from the world’s largest naval fleet had defeated a mighty gang of “three Somali pirates”!

There is more to piracy off the coast of Somalia than the number of incidents. According to the International Maritime Bureau, 111 of the 293 incidents of piracy or armed robbery at sea in 2008 took place off the coast of Somalia. In 2009, this number has already reached 61. Who is behind the pirates and why have they suddenly resorted to such acts? Somalia last had a stable government in 1991 under General Siad Barre. When he was overthrow, clan warfare erupted from which it has not recovered. The brief interlude from June to December 2006 when the Islamic Courts Union established some normalcy, the Ethiopian army, backed by the warlords in Washington, was unleashed on Somalia. The Islamic Courts Union government was driven from power but soon the mayhem resumed. A government of sorts was installed in Somalia on January 31, 2009 but there is no peace yet.

The biggest acts of piracy are taking place off the coast of Somalia by Western trawlers that take huge fish catches impoverishing the small, fragile fishing community on the Somali coast. Western countries steal an estimated $300 million worth of fish annually from Somali waters. Without coast guards or vessels, Somalia cannot protect its interests or its people. Imagine if this occurred off the coast of Canada, the US or Britain; their naval gunboats would immediately go into action but not poor Somalia.

An even greater crime is being committed by Western companies. They are dumping toxic waste in Somali waters. The Qatari TV station, Al-Jazeera quoted Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN envoy for Somalia, on April 15 that the world body has “reliable information” about European and Asian companies dumping toxic waste, including nuclear waste, off the Somali coastline. Proof of toxic waste dumping emerged when rusting containers washed up on the shores of Somalia following the tsunami in December 2004. Nick Nuttall, spokesman for the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), said when the barrels were smashed open by the force of the waves, the containers exposed a “frightening activity” that had been going on for more than a decade. “European companies found it to be very cheap to get rid of the waste, costing as little as $2.50 a tonne, where waste disposal costs in Europe are something like $1000 a tonne.” The toxic materials included uranium radioactive waste, lead, heavy metals like cadmium and mercury, industrial waste, as well as hospital and chemical wastes. Somalia without a government had become the world’s toxic waste dumping ground resulting in serious illnesses among its people.

The pirates have latched on to the toxic waste dumping as an excuse to demand ransom from ship owners. They claim it is a small price to pay for cleaning up the waste. They have no intention of doing any clean up; the pirates have links with clan leaders and warlords, mostly based in the US-created enclaves called Somaliland and Puntland, where a number of Ethiopian military bases are located. The money they get as ransom is shared among a number of people that also provide logistics such as fuel, mother ships and port facilities to the pirates. Both the Ethiopian military as well as government are on the take from this ransom money. It would be interesting to see how Washington would react now that an American-registered ship, the Maersk Alabama was targeted.

In the past, Western companies, mainly from Switzerland and Italy, paid Somali clan leaders or warlords small sums to dump waste; with continuing mayhem, they have stopped paying. Now they just dump their waste and leave, according to the UNEP. Swiss and Italian dumping of waste in Somalia violates international treaties to which both countries are signatories. Switzerland and Italy signed and ratified the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, which came into force in 1992. It also prohibits the shipping of hazardous waste to a war zone.

But when the crime is committed against an impoverished Muslim country in Africa, no laws apply. The “civilized” West behaves in strange ways. No wonder most people in the world do not wish to become as “civilized” as those in the West!

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