Is NATO right to conclude Operation Ocean Shield?

With NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield concluded and naval forces withdrawing from the Indian Ocean, we examine the impact this could have to Somali piracy.

Since 2009, military vessels from various NATO countries have been working together to police the waters off the Horn of Africa in a bid to deter pirates from targeting passing merchant vessels. If you look at the statistics, arguably Operation Ocean Shield has been an unmitigated success in achieving this aim. Prior to the incident involving CPO Korea in October, the last confirmed piracy incident to occur in the Indian Ocean, according to Dryad’s records, was in February 2014 with the attack on the Kenyan vessel MV Andrea. The operation has also been credited for the successful capture of almost 300 suspected pirates; 50 of these forwarded for prosecution in other countries.

The pirates themselves have also provided strong evidence to support the effectiveness a navy warship presence has had on deterring their actions. A  released last year, carried out by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime on 66 Somali inmates accused of piracy, found that international naval presence was the single biggest deterrent against piracy. The survey also revealed that poor economic conditions were the main motivator for piracy and that illegal fishing, if not addressed, has the potential to escalate that motivation. Given that Somali pirates are clearly prepared to risk their lives and liberty to provide for their families, it comes as little surprise that imprisonment was the third effective deterrent they mentioned.

This survey succeeded in identifying three, but not all, important components of the cause and suppression of Somali piracy, namely: the presence of naval vessels, the capture and prosecution of pirates and the poor economic situation in Somalia. Is it prudent then for NATO to remove the deterrents if the cause of piracy still remains?


Has the cause been treated enough?

The UN classes Somalia as a Least Developed Country (LDC). Its economy is supported chiefly by industries such as agriculture, textiles and telecommunication, and has been hurt by decades of civil war culminating with the toppling of the military regime of President Barre in 1991. The usurping of Barre saw rival warlords fracture the country and cause the regions of Somaliland and Puntland to break away. In 2012, the same year that a new internationally backed government finally formed in Somalia, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) found that the country had some of the lowest development indicators in the world. Then came the treatment to combat Somali piracy, and this treatment (a combination of naval patrols and greater adoption of anti-piracy measures on board ships, including physical) seems to have worked.

So where is Somalia now in comparison to where it was then? Is the country any stronger economically? Are its people any better off? Severe poverty is still rife in the country. There is now a Federal Government in place but the stability this offers is countered somewhat by new problems, chiefly the rise of militant extremist groups such al-Shabaab, who hold a sporadic presence in Southern Somalia, and Islamic State, who currently control the city of Qandala, Puntland – a port town with strong ties to Somalia’s fishing industry.

To the issue of illegal fishing, the practice is still rife. There are occasional reports of Puntland Maritime Police seizing vessels that are caught carrying out this activity. The crew of these vessels are usually detained for several weeks, will lose their vessel and are forced to pay a fine after they are released. But this has done little to prevent the illegal practice, with Somali fisherman still finding themselves having to compete with unregulated fishing fleets from Asia and Europe. It could be said that EUNAVFOR could be taking a more active role in helping Somalia’s fishing communities to develop by helping them to protect their EEZ against this illegal practice and working to further develop the embryonic coastguard.

More encouragingly, the European Union, the Federal Government of Somali, the Federal States of Puntland and Galmudug, and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) announced that it would be working together on a to encourage economic opportunities for young people living in coastal communities in Somalia. The Coastal Communities Against Piracy (CCAP) project will tap into Somalia’s rich fishing industry; looking to create long-term employment in fishing communities to diminish the temptation for disillusioned Somali youths to turn to piracy as a means of income.


The Impact

Whilst it is clear that Somali piracy can be contained when sufficient anti-piracy measures are in place, the threat can only be abolished from treating the causes which exist ashore. This is a long and complicated process that involves nations and navies working with Somalia’s Federal Government to offer investment and support to help create jobs, develop its infrastructure, protect its EEZ and help Somalia to achieve economic growth and stability.

It is obvious that Somalia is still facing many of the same issues it did during the height of Somali piracy, but also new ones in the form of extreme jihadist terrorist groups trying to destabilise its government. We anticipate that NATO will continue to monitor the Indian Ocean closely now that the operation has concluded and it is equally as likely that NATO will respond quickly and re-prescribe its medicine if it suspects that the piracy threat could return in an industrious manner.

NATO is responding to a shifting threat picture and the end of Operation Ocean Shield marks a re-calibration of sorts of its objectives, impacted by having to increase maritime patrols in the Baltic and Black Seas and assist with the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean. The latter was reflected earlier in November when NATO ended Operation Active Endeavour to commence Operation Sea Guardian – a broader strategy aimed at assisting the European Union to stop human trafficking from North Africa. It is also important to remember that whilst Ocean Shield has ended, EUNAVFOR Operation Atalanta will remain active in the area; it was that the mandate of the operation will be extended until 31 December 2018.

In sum, the effective response of the both the military and civilian maritime community to counter piracy efforts, as well as the increase in aid development to the Federal Government of Somali, has seen a decrease in piracy yearly. Nevertheless, the high rate of poverty, increase in IUU fishing and lack of an effective Somalian government ensures that there remains a possibility of maritime crime returning to the Horn of Africa. With a reduction in military capability in that deterrent, the threat from Somalia piracy will likely be heightened.