EU takes tough stand on Somali pirates
By Neil Hodge
On 15 May, the European Union took the fight to the Somali pirates’ home base for the first time, destroying several of their signature fiberglass skiffs as they lay on the beach. The EU’s Naval Force Somalia (EU Navfor) struck Xarardheere, a known hotspot for pirate operations, via combat helicopter, with forces never actually landing in Somalia. European officials said it was likely that there would be more strikes in the future.
‘This is a fantastic opportunity,’ said Lt Cmdr Jacqueline Sherriff, a spokeswoman for the European Union’s antipiracy force. ‘What we want to do is make life more difficult for these guys.’
Somali pirates have hijacked hundreds of ships in the past few years and have netted hundreds of millions of dollars from the hijackings, money that they often reinvest in weapons. Recently, they have attacked ships as far away as Sri Lanka, more than 2,000 miles from home.
The overnight raid on Somali pirate bases is small but significant. This is the first time since the EU set up its naval patrol force off Somalia in December 2008 that it has taken the fight to the pirates' home base.
Some lawyers applaud the action. Sarosh Zaiwalla, senior partner at law firm Zaiwalla & Co, says that ‘piracy should be regarded in the same way as terrorism. States are well within their rights to take pre-emptive action against terrorists, and the same rule should be applied against pirates.’
‘International public policy dictates that action must be taken against piracy. It is therefore perfectly legal for the EU to enter a sovereign state to destroy pirate ships in order to protect its citizens and commercial interests.'
Senior partner, Zaiwalla & Co
He adds: ‘International public policy dictates that action must be taken against piracy. It is therefore perfectly legal for the EU to enter a sovereign state to destroy pirate ships in order to protect its citizens and commercial interests.’
‘The fact that the EU was given consent by the transitional government – even though it was not a requirement – means that the intervention into Somali territory was completely legal. It is absolutely right for sovereign states to take defensive action against acts of piracy, which is effectively terrorism on the seas,’ says Zaiwalla.
Somalia has languished without a functioning central government for more than 20 years, though in recent months the Transitional Federal Government – the internationally-recognised government of the Republic of Somalia – seems to have been gaining momentum and doing a better job of controlling at least the capital, Mogadishu. The rest of Somalia is deemed lawless and a ‘failed state’.
Pirates are currently believed to be holding about 17 ships and 300 crew. The latest high-profile incident involves the Greek-owned oil tanker Smyrni which was hijacked in the Arabian Sea at the beginning of May.
In March, the EU toughened its Somalia anti-piracy mandate – known as ‘Operation Atalanta’ – to allow forces patrolling the Indian Ocean to attack bases on Somali land. Before that, the forces were allowed to pursue pirates only at sea.
On 23 March, the European Council adopted a decision (joint action 851) to amend its original legislation allowing military action to be taken against Somali pirates off the Somali coast. This decision extended the jurisdiction of Navfor so that it can operate in Somali internal waters and territory. Operation Atalanta is the first to be undertaken by EU Navfor, instigated to support UN Security Council Resolutions protecting Somalia-bound vessels.
Jason Chuah, professor of maritime law at City Law School at City University London, says that the EU decision to extend its military operations from territorial waters into land was possible due to UN Security Council resolutions agreed in 2008. Resolution 1846 authorises states and regional organisations co-operating with the Somali Transitional Federal Government to enter Somalia’s territorial waters and use ‘all necessary means’. Resolution 1851 enables states and regional organisations co-operating in the fight against piracy off Somalia’s coast to undertake all necessary measures ‘appropriate in Somalia’.
‘There is a solid basis for the EU being able to extend its own jurisdiction in tackling piracy in Somalia,’ says Chuah. ‘However, the moot point is how far geographically EU troops can move.’
Chuah adds that it is unclear whether the EU Council decision to move into Somali territory includes rescuing hostages on land, or if it enables Navfor to carry out ‘ship-storming’ raids.