Piracy and Grievances

Up until now I have avoided addressing the issue of piracy off the coast of East Africa. I’ve done this both because it’s not a personal area of focus, and because the coverage of the issue, both in the mainstream media and the blogosphere, has been extremely heavy – arguably heavier than the issue merits. I’m not saying that the disruption of a major strategic waterway doesn’t matter. It does. Still, compared with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a global financial and economic crisis, the creeping disaster of climate change and nuclear proliferation, this is a second-tier problem getting first-tier attention.

All that aside, though, I recently ran across this old (January) piece from Johann Hari in the Independent that I thought I’d direct readers to. Hari tries to put the development of piracy off the Somali coast in some context, noting that since the collapse of the Somali central government, international fleets have plundered Somali fisheries and used the Somali coast as a dumping ground for all kinds of nasty stuff including, Hari alleges, nuclear waste:

Yes: nuclear waste. As soon as the government was gone, mysterious European ships started appearing off the coast of Somalia, dumping vast barrels into the ocean. The coastal population began to sicken. At first they suffered strange rashes, nausea and malformed babies. Then, after the 2005 tsunami, hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than 300 died.

Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN envoy to Somalia, tells me: “Somebody is dumping nuclear material here. There is also lead, and heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury – you name it.” Much of it can be traced back to European hospitals and factories, who seem to be passing it on to the Italian mafia to “dispose” of cheaply. When I asked Mr Ould-Abdallah what European governments were doing about it, he said with a sigh: “Nothing. There has been no clean-up, no compensation, and no prevention.”

The article is interesting, but Hari has the same difficulty from which many authors who approach a story from outside the prevailing media narrative suffer: it’s really hard to place bad actions in context without seeming to play the apologist for them. In the Levant, for example, attempting to illuminate the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza is difficult without seeming to implicitly justify terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians. Likewise, it’s hard to point out that the international community has done nothing for Somalia, often aiding and abetting those forces that keep the country in chaos and destitution, permitting fishing fleets to plunder its resources and the industrial world to use it as a trash dump, without making these pirates out to be some kind of seafaring Robin Hoods.

Well, they’re not that. They’re gangsters, bandits, kidnappers and extortionists. They do pose a threat to international commerce, though not one that should be overstated, and need to be dealt with. That said, the international community needs to do a better job plugging the gaps in globalization. Environmental regulations in the West are of limited import if companies there can simply find an ungoverned space somewhere else to use as a toxic waste repository (this, by the way, is a problem that stretches far beyond Somalia). Treaties governing fisheries and national resource rights are of little use if they only apply to those countries that have the wherewithal to enforce them within their own territory. In short, a successfully globalized world requires that its constituent parts construct regimes that force economic actors to pay the full cost of their activities, rather than shifting them to places where most people don’t bother looking.

If nothing else, people are now looking at Somalia again. It would be nice if they saw more than just men in boats with guns.

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