Disarmament Insight


Monday, 1 December 2008

Arrgh me maties, that illicit trade!

Pirates. Not the images that fill legends, sea tales or the covers of cereal boxes but young men, some still boys, armed with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, honing heavy necklaces of ammunition and overtaking vessels, crews and cargo to ransom. The piracy in the Gulf of Aden is a grim reminder of what the illicit market of small arms and light weapons (SALW) can perpetuate. The sheer size of the vessels and the value of the cargo—be it oil or (eyebrow-raising) arms deliveries—shows how a relatively small amount of guns has the physical and figurative power to take over a giant.

In 2008, at least 95 attempted acts of piracy have been reported in the Gulf of Aden, dozens in the last weeks alone. Successful ransom payouts for over a third of these incidents (amounting to about US$ 30 million) promote the idea that piracy pays well. But who wants to tell the families of the crews held hostage that the lives of their loved ones don’t merit a payout? And who wants to imagine the effects of 2 million barrels of crude oil released into the ocean by dissatisfied pirates or as a consequence of an explosion with the weaponry brought on board?

The insecurity also has broader implications for the 20,000 vessels that annually travel through the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Aden: Heightened prices for one thing as shipping companies adjust their travel routes and pay significantly higher insurance premiums. More militarized seas is another. NATO and other military vessels monitor the area and provide escorts to shipping vessels, but the amount of ocean that needs to be covered is simply too large and chasing pirates is a costly use of time and resources.

There is talk of having armed private security companies on commercial vessels for self-defense, but we need to be aware of the impact this would have on the proliferation of the already-hard-to-regulate private security industry. Armed security employees, equipped with enough weapons to defend vessels from increasingly daring pirates would be passing from one jurisdiction to the next with every change in port. Legislation and capacity would have to be strong (in every country) to monitor the weapons on board as they enter ports. It’s very easy to transfer commodities from one vessel to another undetected in the open seas. It strikes me that these weapons could all too easily find a way to the illicit SALW market…

But what about the factors that motivate piracy in the first place? There are some fundamental points that we understand (and forever preach) at a policy level, but look away from in practice. We all know that Somalia is branded a “failed state”, which, save for a bit of backstage anti-terrorism, the international community seems pretty much to have given up on. Most of the recent cases of piracy involve young men from the self-declared state of Puntland, one of the poorest areas in Somalia, where there is no industry, almost no public institutions and minimal future prospects. Waters off Somalia are heavily (and illegally) fished by commercial vessels from around the world, though its own fishing industry has collapsed. What Somalia does have is a rampant illicit market in small arms and an idle population that has become accustomed to violence.

Working on the issue of SALW over the past years, I am pleased that states overwhelmingly voted (or agreed in consensus) in favor of 6 resolutions on SALW at the 63rd session of the UN General Assembly. All of the resolutions provide at least incremental steps forward, such as establishing an Open-Ended Working Group for the Arms Trade Treaty in 2009 and a Group of Governmental Experts for surplus ammunition; calling upon states to establish national controls on illicit brokering; and aiming to better understand the interrelationship between armed violence and development. Another one, known as the ‘Omnibus resolution’,ensures that the UN process to address the illicit trade in small arms will proceed with some defined dates and solid direction for the coming five years.

Unlike so many of the other disarmament issues, SALW is not as trumped at the policy level. Governments are generally comfortable dealing with the illicit trade of SALW. But the gap emerges in the implementation of policies. Considering that the UN Programme of Action on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons (PoA) is in its 8th year of implementation, and considering we’ve recognized the inexorable link between security and development, we should be seeing by now more tangible improvements in the general capacity of states to address the illicit trade in SALW and the demand that beckons it. So why aren’t we? Is it that we are just not good at walking the walk once we’ve done the talk?

But it is true, even if the PoA and all other SALW instruments and resolutions past and present were fully implemented, Somalia would still be in a mess and armed groups would still have the immediate capacity to be pirates—Somalia needs more than any resolution the UN could muster.

Shipping companies will soon find better ways and means to fend off pirates, thus decreasing the opportunities for successful piracy. Strong arms control measures at the national and international level (and the capacity/commitment to actually practice those policies) would mean pirates would have less access to the types and quantities of arms and ammunition they currently have.

But addressing arms and opportunity is not enough. We have to deal with the motivation for arms and piracy in the first place (in SALW language “demand”). The case of piracy in the Gulf of Aden reminds us that economic and humanitarian hardships (or soft issues as they are sometimes called) are not as extractable from the hard strategic interests of states at large. For those who continue to refute the relationship between arms, poverty and violence, all I can say is arms+motivation+opportunity=problem. Argh! Shiver me timbers, it ain’t rocket science.

This is a guest blog by Kerry Maze. Kerry manages the UNIDIR project on 'Multilateral Assistance for Implementing the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms'.

Photo Credit: 'Happy Talk Like a Pirate Day! ARRRGH!!' by CORDAN on Flickr.