EU Naval Forces Have No More Business In Somali Waters

UN anti-piracy resolution officially ends on March 3. Somalia’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Abukar Osman Baale, made it clear to the UN Security Council that Somalia does not want a renewal of the anti-piracy resolution. These measures granted sweeping powers to European Union Naval Forces (EUNAVFOR) and other foreign forces operating in Somali waters.

EUNAVFOR, the European Union Naval Force Operation Atalanta, mandated by UN Resolution 1816, was launched in December 2008 in response to piracy and other maritime crimes off the coast of Somalia. Non-EU countries – Serbia, Montenegro, Ukraine – and even non-European nations – New Zealand and South Korea – where later integrated in the EU flagship operation.

However, other nations, like India, Russia, China, U.S., Turkish and even Iran, in response to the threat raised by the same UN resolution, also launched their own operations to patrol and seemingly to protect commercial shipping lanes on the Western Indian Ocean and the Somali coast.

Europe, however, took the opportunity to get from a Somali official the signing of an unbalanced agreement at a sensitive moment in Somalia’s history. Under the treaty signed on December 31, 2008, EUNAVFOR can do what they want, where they want, how they want with the means they want on Somalia’s soil and waters without liability.

Since 2008, these foreign warships have been patrolling the area for 14 years to deter attempts by pirates to seize vessels and ransom captured crews. But, while this military presence has contributed in part to further deterring maritime piracy in this region, it is nonetheless the development of security in Somalia that has succeeded in drying up the pool of potential pirates and preventing piracy from taking root again on the coast.

Piracy as a reaction

Sea Piracy and other criminal activities in Somali waters came at a time when Somalia, the African country with the longest coastline, was in turmoil and was unable to patrol its own coast. That inability had created opportunities for foreign vessels to use the area for criminal activities.

Some of these activities were arms, drugs and human smuggling, toxic waste dumping, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, and illegal charcoal trade. These criminal activities were not necessarily carried out by organized criminal gangs, but rather the opportunity to profit from the lawlessness in Somalia attracted all kinds of local and foreign profiteers.

For example, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing has had a disastrous impact on the livelihoods of Somali fishermen who were not even close to compete with the huge trawlers from Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and China using illegal fishing methods, including the environmentally catastrophic bottom trawling.

Illegal fishing in particular has had a devastating effect on local fishermen who, faced with a shortage of fish, have had to travel farther and spend more on fuel and other supplies.  Together with the local warlords, they took the law into their own hands to make these foreign marauders pay for their plunder.

These pirates who stoked passions, rightly or wrongly, in other countries and triggered the intervention of foreign forces in this sea breathed new life into the local economy which nevertheless made Somalia a ferment of maritime crimes on the agenda of the UN Security Council in 2008.

EUNAVOR ambivalence

Now 14 years after, there is no more armed robbery and hostage taking in the Somali waters but other maritime crimes, like arms smuggling, illegal charcoal trade and illegal fishing, have been on the rise. In fact, an estimated $300 million worth of seafood is stolen from Somalia each year through illegal fishing.

EUNAVFOR has never committed to deter or detain illegally fishing vessels operating in Somali waters. On the contrary, not only the European naval forces turned a blind eye on this activity but there are well-documented incidents where they have assisted vessels fishing illegally off the coast of Somalia struggling with suspected pirates. In some way, all pirates are not equal in the eyes of EUNAVFOR at a time when illegal fishing becomes a global scourge.

In the latest piracy incident, in April 2019, it should be highlighted that the Spanish fishing vessel TXORI ARGI in Somali waters was assisted by the Spanish frigate ESPS Navarra operating under Operation Atalanta. Let’s also keep in mind Operation Atalanta headquarter is based in Spain which doesn’t inspire confidence with this apparent conflict of interest.

As a matter of fact, according to a One Earth Future Foundation report on illegal fishing, Spanish vessels illegally catch more than 16,000 tons of fish a year in Somali waters, making Spain the third most plundering country of fisheries resources in the Horn of Africa. Their plunder peaked in 2003, plummeted in 2008 and resumed after EUNAVFOR warships began patrolling Somali waters.

The ambivalence of cracking down on illegal fishing vessels complicates enforcement of the UN resolution when these pirate fishing vessels originate from the same countries whose warships patrol Somalia’s waters.

EUNAVFOR shortcomings

Small Arms smuggling: EUNAVFOR has proven ineffective in stemming the flow of illegal arms from Yemen to Somalia. According to a Global Initiative report, Yemeni arm smugglers use the Puntland to smuggle light Chinese-made weaponry originating allegedly from Iran.

Illegal Charcoal Trade: Operation Atalanta has also proved ineffective against illegal charcoal trade sent to Arab Gulf states. In fact, European naval forces turn a blind to this traffic where Kenyan forces, present in Somalia as part of the Europe-funded AMISOM, are involved. Vessels mainly operate from the port of Kismayo, such as the now stranded MV Fox in Salalah, Oman, which is believed to be loaded with nearly 250,000 bags of illegal charcoal from the drought-stricken region of Jubaland.

Illegal fishing: EU naval forces were also incapable of deterring illegal foreign fishing on the Somali coast while harassing local fishermen whom they constantly and conveniently affiliate with pirates. Besides the Spanish trawlers we mentioned, other unlicensed fish pirates vessels from Egypt, Iran, India, South-Asia and even China operate in Somali waters without any interference from the UN-mandated naval forces.

Toxic Waste: The illegal dumping of toxic waste, after illegal fishing, was the second reason given by pirates to capture and ransom ships in Somali waters. The phenomenon, the extent of which was revealed after the 2004 tsunami, didn’t stopped with Operation Atalanta. At least once a year, barrels of toxic waste are washed ashore in Somalia. Toxic waste dumping incidents began long before EUNAVFOR however. In fact, European “ecomafia“, such as the Calabrian Ndrangheta, in collaboration with ENEA, Italy’s state energy research institute, already had Somalia in their address book since 1989. As recently as last December, Danish flagged cargo ship “loaded with harmful nuclear waste” was spotted close to Somalia. Very little or no information about its suspicious presence in this area has been shared by the very people tasked with monitoring the Somali coast.

Conflicts of interest: There are things left unsaid in this EU Operation Atalanta. The relation between Spain-based headquarter and Spanish trawlers fishing illegally and under the EU forces protection is one. The second is the toxic waste originated from Europe and dumped in Somali waters. The third, most detrimental activity, is the active and covert role of the French Navy operating under Operation Atalanta, in the 2011 Kenyan invasion of the Jubaland region. France’s oil giant Total is reportedly behind the Kenyan incursion and occupation of the region.

All these reasons are proof that the Somali coast cannot be entrusted to outside forces, especially when the alleged crimes have ramifications with countries engaged in the fight against piracy.

Condescending behavior from Europe

EUNAVFOR has been unresponsive to Somali authorities’ numerous request to receive information on their activities on Somali waters and has been parsimonious in sharing data related to maritime crimes on the Somali coast. Global Initiative also advised EU to remove administrative hurdles to let their naval forces to coordinate with the Somali authorities about criminal activities in the Somali waters.

It is actually doubtful EU naval forces need a UN resolution to pursue pirates in Somali waters or soil. There have been no incidents of piracy for four consecutive years and, if it is necessary to pursue a suspect, an international mechanism is already in place. Somalia is a member of Interpol and as such is bound to cooperate with other member states.

If EU flagship operation goal to legally pursue potential pirates in Somali waters is vital to Europe, it should not look down on Somalia’s capacity and get permission from Somali authorities which were instrumental in eradicating piracy to take hold on its soil. If the objective of the operation is to protect shipping lane in that region without Somalia’s help, they are free to roam the high seas and battle piracy wherever it emerges.

Moreover, if the traditional distrust, exasperated by the current Ukraine-Russia conflict, between these military powers who also sit on the UN Council escalates into open hostility, the security they are supposed to reinforce in Somali waters would be a thing of the past as Somalia would be caught in the crossfire. Thus, the UN resolution that allows these countries, with diverging interests and often at loggerheads on many issues, to patrol the region does not do justice to Somalia’s needs.

As many vessels operate illegally in these waters under the watchful eye of their naval forces, it becomes necessary for Somalia to bring order to these overlapping operations which endanger the interests of the country and the lives of its citizens.

In a nutshell

Piracy and armed robbery at sea are exogenous to Somalia because activities labelled as such have triggered by external illegal activities and a vacuum of state institutions destroyed by the Somali civil war.

The nascent Somali institutions and international effort to stop and deter the lucrative piracy off the Somali coast have been a success until now. However, the effort must morph to a new kind of response than the one initiated by the successive anti-piracy UN Resolutions that relied on foreign forces.

Last December, the UNSC unanimously agreed with Somalia that bilateral agreements are the way forward to continue the gain over lawlessness in the Somali waters. Nations that patrolled the Somali waters until now need to accept Somali lead in uprooting piracy once for all and in combating maritime crimes with the help of willing security partners.

Somalia no longer needs EUNAVFOR and for this reason there is no need to renew the anti-piracy resolution. It should have been done much sooner, but the EU’s inability to grasp the new reality on the ground has brought us this far. The other European Union Missions in Somalia (EUCAP and EUTM) should also be overhauled to reflect the country’s needs and contribution.

With Somalia’s increased ability to secure its sea and the security threat arising from the Russian-Ukrainian war, the end of Operation Atalanta comes at just the right time. EU naval forces, which already include Ukraine, would rather focus on the threat closer to home. Ukrainian naval forces were integrated in EU naval forces, now it’s the time to return the favor.

Somali government, through its UN representative had thanked the world body members for their efforts to stem the scourge of piracy at sea but will now relay European forces to secure its land and sea by its own means.

AbdiQani Badar

AbdiQani Badar is a historian, political commentator and avid writer. He has written extensively on Somali issues and historical events.