Piracy: Declining in the Gulf of Aden, Rising in the Gulf of Guinea

We are pleased to welcome Milena Sterio as a contributing author to Communis Hostis Omnium. She is an Associate Professor at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, where she teaches international law and international criminal law.  She has published numerous articles on the topic of maritime piracy, and she frequently lectures on this topic.  She is a member of the Piracy Working Group, an expert think tank founded by members of the prominent non-governmental organization, the Public International Law and Policy Group.  In her capacity as Piracy Working Group member, she traveled to the Seychelles and to Mauritius, where she consulted with local prosecutors and judges on best strategies toward successful national piracy prosecutions.

A crew member prepares to board a tanker that was hijacked by pirates in Benin on 24 July 2011. Photo: IRIN/Daniel Hayduk

Maritime piracy in the Gulf of Aden and elsewhere in the Indian Ocean appears to be on the decline.  In 2012, only 35 piracy attacks took place, compared to 163 attacks in 2009.  As of January 2013, Somali pirates were holding 4 large ships with an estimated 108 hostages.  In the past, the pirates had held dozens of ships and several hundred hostages at one time.  Some news reports indicate that many Somali pirates seem ready to abandon this once lucrative criminal endeavor.  Last year, Mohamed Abdi Hassan, a high-profile Somali pirate, was quoted as saying “I have given up piracy and succeeded in encouraging more youths to give up piracy.”

This decline in piratical activity off the east cost of the African continent is most likely due to several factors.  First, the Gulf of Aden and other waters of the Indian Ocean have been more heavily patrolled by joint maritime forces of several nations, including European Union and NATO-led fleets.  The presence of naval forces in these waters has deterred some pirates from attempting attacks on merchant ships.  Second, many merchant and passenger cruise ships sailing off the east coast of Africa have been staffed with armed security guards.  Statistics show that no successful pirate attack has ever occurred against a ship protected by armed guards.  Third, Somali pirates seemed to engage in the crime of piracy because it represented a lucrative business opportunity, which posed minimal risk and promised tens of thousands of dollars in financial gains.  Today, piracy is a more risky endeavor, because of the presence of naval fleets in the Indian Ocean as well as armed guards aboard ships.  Thus, Somali pirates may seem willing to abandon this criminal enterprise in order to possibly explore other kinds of opportunities.

Yet, although piracy seems to be declining off the east coast of Africa, the opposite is true for the west coast of the African continent.  Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, home to major oil-producing states such as Nigeria, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Ghana, has been on the rise.  34 piracy incidents were recorded between January and September 2012, up from thirty in 2011. Togo reported more attacks in 2012 than in the previous five years combined, with three vessels hijacked, two boarded and six attempted attacks.  Piracy has also been on the rise in Benin.  In addition, Nigeria reported over twenty attacks in 2012.  And on February 3, 2013, a French oil tanker was reported missing off the Ivory Coast; according to the International Maritime Bureau, the ship was probably pirated off the shores of Nigeria.

The piracy model in the Gulf of Guinea resembles its counterpart in the Gulf of Aden in terms of the pirates’ modus operandi: in West Africa, pirates sail out to the sea on larger vessels but then launch attacks using smaller skiffs.  In addition, pirates in West Africa seem to be resorting to this crime because of factors similar to those that have existed in Somalia for several decades: insecurity, poverty, as well as a lack of education and employment opportunities.  However, while Somali pirates seemed mostly after collecting ransoms from shipping companies in exchange for the crew and cargo, pirates in West Africa seem more interested in keeping the cargo (mostly oil) of any successful hijacking operations, which they then sell on the black market.  Reports also indicate that pirates in the Gulf of Guinea are more prone to violence, and that they act in more brutal ways toward the captured crewmembers.  And because the Gulf of Guinea is a rich oil-producing region, its strategic importance, and thus the necessity of curbing the rising piracy threat, may be even greater than the piracy menace in the Gulf of Aden had ever been.

Unsurprisingly, like in the case of Somali piracy, the United Nations Security Council has become involved in finding solutions for this developing regional crisis.  On February 29, 2012, the Security Council adopted resolution 2039 calling on the Secretary-General to “support efforts towards mobilising resources following the creation of the regional strategy to assist in building national and regional capacities in close consultation with states and regional and extraregional organizations.”  Furthermore, on October 31, 2012, the United Nations Security Council, in resolution 2018, condemned all acts of maritime piracy and armed robbery at sea in West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea and encouraged states in the region to work together toward a comprehensive response to the menace of piracy.  The Security Council, in this unanimously adopted resolution, encouraged several regional organizations (the Council encouraged the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) and the Gulf of Guinea Commission (GGC)) to jointly develop a strategy against maritime piracy.  Such joint strategy could entail the drafting of more comprehensive domestic laws which would criminalize piracy and armed robbery at sea, as well as the development of an information-sharing regional center.  Moreover, the regional anti-piracy efforts could include the development of domestic laws which would implement international agreements existing in the field of international maritime law.  In addition, ECOWAS, ECCAS and GGC could engage in bilateral or regional maritime patrols in the Gulf of Guinea, in order to ensure the safety of maritime navigation and thwart potential piratical attacks.  Finally, the Security Council urged member states of ECOWAS, ECCAS, and GGC to cooperate with other states, such as states where ships are registered, and states where victims or perpetrators come from, in the prosecution of pirates as well as of piracy facilitators and financiers, in accordance with applicable international law.   The Security Council thus encouraged all states in the international community to assist countries in the region in strengthening anti-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Guinea.

Like the Security Council, the Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, has also expressed his intention to focus on the piracy problem in the Gulf of Guinea, by deploying a United Nations assessment mission to the region in order to explore options on how to best address the problem.  According to the Secretary-General, piracy in the Gulf of Guinea could hinder economic development and undermine security in the region.

Within the next few months, the Security Council expects a briefing from Said Djinnit, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative and head of the UN Office for West Africa (UNOWA), on the Secretary-General’s semi-annual report, including an update on the Gulf of Guinea piracy problem.  The international community will have hopefully learned from the Gulf of Aden piracy epidemic, which seems to have been successfully curbed through coordinated international maritime efforts, that anti-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Guinea will similarly require international and regional strategy and a comprehensive anti-piracy plan.

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About Milena Sterio
Milena Sterio is a law professor at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, where she teaches and specializes in International Law, International Criminal Law, Maritime Piracy, and Human Rights.

3 Responses to Piracy: Declining in the Gulf of Aden, Rising in the Gulf of Guinea

  1. David Rider says:

    An interesting piece. I’ve just spent two days plotting the positions of every attack in the Gulf of Guinea during 2012 and their respective distances from shore… it was rather time consuming!

  2. Pingback: Piracy in West Africa: A New Model (Unfortunately)? | Communis Hostis Omnium

  3. Pingback: Piracy in West Africa: A New Model (Unfortunately)? « IntLawGrrls

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