Private or Pirate Navy?

Puntland Marine Police Forces source:Somaliareport.com

The autonomous region of Puntland in Somalia has gotten a bad rap for being a hotbed for pirates. Though unrecognized as a state, there has been some international expectation that Puntland should take steps to prevent and punish acts of piracy, particularly those originating from within Puntland. In this regard, there have been efforts to create a Puntland coastguard or Navy (the “Puntland Maritime Police Force”), bankrolled by the United Arab Emirates and with training from private security firms. This is where the story of Sterling Corporate Services takes off. The New York Times reports:

Concerned about the impact of piracy on commercial shipping in the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates has sought to take the lead in battling Somali pirates, both overtly and in secret by bankrolling operations like Sterling’s.

[…]

A United Nations investigative group described the effort by a company based in Dubai called Sterling Corporate Services to create the force as a “brazen, large-scale and protracted violation” of the arms embargo in place on Somalia

[…]

Sterling has portrayed its operation as a bold private-sector attempt to battle the scourge of piracy where governments were failing.

Somalia Report notes that the UN effectively shut down the estimated $50 million per year program by threatening sanctions against UAE for violations of the Somalia arms embargo. In addition to the illegal shipments of arms, the program may have been a criminal pirate enterprise.

A Private Navy?

There is an argument that private navies are legally permissible under the law of the sea, particularly the legal regime governing anti-piracy operations on the high seas. Such navies are permissible if the navy is “on government service and authorized to that effect” pursuant to Article 107 of UNCLOS. The idea here is that a government may hire private companies to engage in police functions so long as it is made explicitly clear by markings and identification that the ship is controlled by the government and under a presumably military chain of command. It has been argued that ships on government service could not only provide self-defence to an escorted ship but could also engage in pirate hunting. Alternatively, if a private navy is not on government service but limits its actions to those justified by individual (as opposed to sovereign) self-defence, it may also be legally permissible. Here, aggressive acts would be strictly limited to those necessary to repel an attack, as is consistent with general principles of the law of self-defence. It would not include acts intended to prevent future attacks.

This is where the status of Puntland as an autonomous region becomes important. Though the international community has chosen to engage the Puntland government, it has chosen not to recognize Puntland’s sovereignty instead deferring to the project of solidifying the new Somali Federal Government in Mogadishu. Therefore, naval vessels patrolling the territorial waters of Somalia off of the coast of the autonomous region of Puntland are not “on government service” for purposes of Article 107 of UNCLOS.

Alternatively, there is some evidence that other states may have supported the Puntland Navy:

American officials have said publicly that they never endorsed the creation of the private army, but it is unclear if Sterling had tacit support from parts of the United States government. For instance, the investigative group reported in July that the counterpiracy force shared some of the same facilities as the Puntland Intelligence Service, a spy organization answering to Puntland’s president, Abdirahman Farole, that has been trained by C.I.A. officers and contractors for more than a decade.

Even if this is the case, the Puntland naval vessels are not “clearly marked and identifiable as being on government service” by a recognized sovereign such as the United States or the UAE. Therefore, seizing pirates on the high seas would not be justified pursuant to Article 107 of UNCLOS.

A Pirate Navy?

This raises the question of whether an act of violence by the Puntland Navy against another ship on the high seas constitutes piracy. Although there is some continuing debate as to the “private ends” requirements in Article 101 of UNCLOS, the better view is that it excludes from the definition of piracy, acts of violence by a sovereign. As Puntland is not a sovereign power, this exclusion from the definition of piracy does not apply. Therefore, acts of violence, detention or depredation committed by a Puntland Navy on the high seas (even if purportedly for the purpose of protecting the territory and people of Puntland) would constitute acts of piracy.

As noted above, the other possible justification for the seizure of pirate vessels on the high seas by the Puntland Navy is the doctrine of personal self-defence. This would justify acts strictly necessary to repel an ongoing attack. It would not justify acts of violence against suspected pirate vessels prior to an attack. Nor would it justify acts within the typical mandate of a sovereign navy or coast guard, including patrolling waters and interdicting ships.

The International community was displeased that Sterling was training these individuals because it was an apparent violation of the arms embargo imposed on Somalia. But, technically, Puntland’s Navy may have also been engaged in acts of piracy.

Territorial Waters

The Puntland Navy was also likely conducting operations within Somalia’s territorial waters which are part of the sovereign territory of the Somali Federal Government. The latter has the exclusive right to protect its territorial waters and to restrict traffic through this zone (See e.g. Article 25 UNCLOS “Rights of protection of the coastal State”), although a number of Security Council Resolutions have given foreign sovereigns some powers of interdiction in these waters as an exceptional measure. It is theoretically possible that the Somali Federal Government would attempt to delegate this coast guard function to an autonomous region’s forces such as the Puntland Navy. But it is unclear if this would be permissible pursuant to international law or whether Puntland would be willing to act on behalf of the Somali Federal Government, as opposed to under its own asserted authority as a sovereign.

Free Agents

The more practical question, now that the funding for Puntland’s Navy has disappeared, is what will happen to the individuals who were trained by Sterling. The New York Times reports:

With the South African trainers gone, the African Union has turned to a different security contractor, Bancroft Global Development, based in Washington, to assess whether the pirate hunters in Puntland can be assimilated into the stew of other security forces in Somalia sanctioned both by the United States and the African Union. Among those groups are a 10,000-man Somali national army and troops of Somalia’s National Security Agency, based in Mogadishu, which is closely allied with the C.I.A.

[…]

But with the antipiracy army now abandoned by its sponsors, the hundreds of half-trained and well-armed members of the Puntland Maritime Police Force have been left to fend for themselves at a desert camp carved out of the sand, perhaps to join up with the pirates or Qaeda-linked militants or to sell themselves to the highest bidder in Somalia’s clan wars — yet another dangerous element in the Somali mix.

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6 Responses to Private or Pirate Navy?

  1. David Rider says:

    It’s deeply ironic that as the rug was pulled out from underneath them in June, the PMPF had also had one of their most successful anti-piracy runs at the time. They drove several gangs from the region, including Isse Yulux, whose gang hold the MT Smyrni and Royal Grace captive.

    Since then, of course, the gangs have begun moving back in to Puntland. The PMPF was without doubt one of the key drivers in piracy reduction earlier this year. Their presence on shore was a serious thorn in the side of the pirates.

  2. Since the program has lost its funding, my question may be rather academic, but I’ll ask it anyway. Does sovereignty really depend on other governments’ recognition? The international community did not recognize the Taliban regime in Afghanistan (maybe two countries did?), but did that make the regime any less the effective government there? If the writ of Mogadishu is not effective in Puntland while the Puntland’s government’s is, why wouldn’t appropriately marked PMPF vessels be “on government service/”

    • That’s a fair point John and perhaps I was a bit conclusory in the interests of being provocative. Recognition by 3rd states or the international community is but one factor to consider in evaluating whether a state or purported state has territorial sovereignty over a geographic area. The Montevideo Convention sets forth four basic requirements of statehood: a permanent population; a defined territory; effective government; and capacity to enter into relations with other states. By this definition Puntland, does possess the criteria of statehood to some degree. Certainly Puntland has recently entered into agreements with other states for the transfer and imprisonment of pirates within its territory and was invited to the London Conference earlier this year. However, if Puntland does indeed claim sovereignty, such a claim is at odds with the Provisional Constitution of the Somalia which provides “The sovereignty and unity of the Federal Republic of Somalia is inviolable.” Competing claims of sovereignty and the lack of recognition by third states would militate against the recognition of Puntland’s statehood and territorial sovereignty under international law. Furthermore, Puntland would likely not have the right to appear before the international tribunals (ICJ and ITLOS) that could hear claims regarding the land or territorial waters of Puntland. Again reducing its claim to sovereignty. Finally, it must be said that Puntland’s “Navy” may not have possessed ships capable of navigating the high seas. If its conduct was limited to the territorial waters and the coast, acts by the Navy could not be considered piracy.

      • Jon Bellish says:

        I would also add that the Montevideo Convention lays out the objective requirements for statehood, but there is another school of thought that places much more weight on the subjective criteria that other states in fact recognize the entity in question as a state and deal with it as such. On that count, Puntland it is doubtful that Puntland would qualify.

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