A little groggy

The DLR has a hangover. Not a searing, bastard-behind-the-eyes, morning sick kind of hangover. Just a little bit shabby, alarmingly thirsty, slightly-hungrier-than-usual hangover.

Anyway, suffice to say we were already a little grumpy when we rolled up our sleeves for some mammoth washing up and scooted over to the iplayer to listen to Tom Mangold’s Sea Gangsters on the BBC’s Radio 4 from last night. Well, that just pissed us off more.

The programme is about the pirates operating out of Somalia in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean. Now, piracy often conjures up romantic images of corsairs and buccaneers; Blackbeards and Redbeards; or, if you’re a teenage girl, Johnny Depp in eye shadow. It’s slightly curious that pirates can still be popularly represented as men of derring-do and adventure (and occasionally as women), rapscallions operating outside of the law but under a strict code of honour, given that piracy was often a brutal pastime. Maybe it’s because the British empire was essentially built on state-sanctioned piracy, or so one could argue.

No such romance exists for Mangold, a longtime television reporter, though. He insists on calling them ‘gangsters’ throughout the programme, and reminding us that ‘they torture, they brutalise, they murder without pity.’ And so begins the demonisation of the Somali pirates.

Does this man look romantic to you?

At the DLR, we harbour no misconceptions about piracy, how they operate and the terrible things wrought upon the seamen and seawomen who are captured and sometimes killed. But Mangold’s alarmist, over-the-top claptrap does no one any favours and seems intended to dehumanise the ‘gangsters’ so that the programme can suggest that the international counter-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean are treating them with kid gloves and that we need to be a bit more stern with them.

The programme resembled, sadly, a diatribe in the Daily Wail against immigrants or about how the nanny state needs to stop giving them free housing. Which is probably why the Wail picked up on the programme in an article explictly criticising Royal Naval policies towards the pirates. The Royal Navy feeds detained pirate suspects! And gives them nicotine patches! The horror!

Mangold appears distraught that in one case (the only case he cites) suspected pirates were detained and subsequently released, despite having ladders, Kalashnikov rifles and RPGs (ladders, by the way, were the pirate giveaway – why do you need ladders as a fisherman?). He seems upset that the legal decision was made to free them rather than going through the expense of flying them back to the UK, trying them and imprisoning them without a clear sign that they would be convicted. They’re obviously pirates, he suggests. Forget due process! Convict these men who are self-evidently guilty! (We paraphrase, but that really is the gist.) Citing Senator Mark King and Jan Kopernicki of Shell Shipping, it’s suggested that we don’t even need legal recourse, we just need to attack motherships.

The Royal Navy is keen to point out the nation’s ‘sea blindness’ at the moment, convinced that the population is unaware of the importance of sea power in securing maritime trade and our energy supplies. Hence, analysts and practitioners often like to draw similes to the land, and so did Mangold’s programme. The Indian Ocean is like the M4, apparently. This makes the Somali pirates a bit like a West Country Dick Turpins, or modern-day carjackers. I’d be interested to hear whether Mangold thinks we should employ a shoot-on-sight policy for armed criminals on land in the UK.

Something, Mangold urges, must be done! According to the programme, shipping through the Indian Ocean is near a tipping point. Unless we stop the pirates, oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz might stop. Except, this is nonsense. Only about 0.5% of the ships transiting the Gulf of Aden are subject to any piratical activity.

These boys are going to put an end to global shipping, apparently.

Of course, piracy is a harrowing event and a real danger to commercial crews and private yachtspeople in the Indian Ocean. We don’t want to belittle it, and the DLR has actually spoken to people in the shipping industry and navies currently deployed and it would obviously be good to minimise the effects of piracy, particularly as it has become more violent in recent months. But Mangold’s demonisation of the pirates and tubthumping calls for a stronger and more muscular naval presence is dealing with the symptoms, not the disease. It’s now a cliché to state that the roots of piracy are ashore, and the solution is on land. Piracy started to pick up after the fishing grounds off the coast of Somalia were depleted by Middle Eastern and European ships illegally fishing in Somali waters. Given that the country hasn’t had a functioning government for 20 years, there’s no coast guard to stop this. Hence, you get economically disenfranchised men with easy access to weapons and near a major shipping route. Piracy is the best career option they have.

Given that no government wants to concertedly tackle the problems on land, there are other things that could be done. The creation of an international pirate court under the auspices of the UN would get around the bottleneck of prosecuting pirates in Kenya, the Seychelles and elsewhere, while also bypassing the costs of prosecutions in Europe of the US. Education and retraining programmes for out-of-work fishermen would offer them other career options; piracy isn’t fun and it’s dangerous, so having another viable way to earn money would be preferable. Preventing the flow of weapons from Yemen would make it harder and more expensive for them to arm themselves. Co-ordinating ransom payments and negotiations to minimise the amounts paid out would stop the cycle of ever-growing ransoms. And improving intelligence networks on the flow of cash from ransoms and where possible confiscating money or goods bought with these proceeds would alter the cost-benefit analysis for pirates.

Or you could just blow the pirates out of the water. I’m sure the images of European and American frigates killing 10-20 skinny, poor Somalis in skiffs with cannons will do wonders for relations with the Muslim world and help undermine the Shabab and other Islamist movements in the country. Good plan.

Oh, and by the way, Mangold, Somalia is in the Horn of Africa, not the Arabian peninsula.

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