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Russia Wants Somali Pirates Held Accountable

  • Nikola Krastev

Suspected Somali pirates behind bars at a court in the southern Yemeni city of Aden. Prosecuting pirates has proven to be complicated.

Suspected Somali pirates behind bars at a court in the southern Yemeni city of Aden. Prosecuting pirates has proven to be complicated.

UNITED NATIONS -- Russia's ambassador to the United Nations has introduced a draft resolution to the Security Council calling for new measures to ensure Somali pirates are punished when they are caught.

Vitaly Churkin on April 6 called on Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to produce a report in three months on ways to strengthen the international legal system on piracy:

"We feel that one of the weak links in the entire setup, with all the energy which is being expended by the international community, with navies of various countries including Russian naval vessels off the coast of Somalia, one of the weak links is the legal process which would allow us to be sure that there is no impunity once pirates are caught off the coast of Somalia," Churkin said.

Currently, catching pirates is easier than convicting them.

The Somali pirates operate at great distances off the Horn of Africa, sometimes as much as 2,000 kilometers from their homes in Somalia.

When they are caught, they cannot be returned to their homes for trial, because Somali is a failed state riven by civil war.

So, due to the uncertainty over which country has jurisdiction over crimes in the open ocean, the pirates are frequently released instead.

Legal Hurdles

Even when they are kept in custody, Churkin said, there is no certainty the pirates will be punished severely. That is because different countries approach the crime of piracy differently.

"Some countries have more problems than others because legal systems of some countries match the Anglo-Saxon legal system," Churkin said. "For some countries including Russia there are procedural and other legal problems. So all those issues we hope will be addressed in the report of the secretary-general if this resolution is passed."

The uncertainty of clear and severe punishment is widely thought to embolden Somali pirates to continue seizing commercial ships, despite tough new efforts by many countries to patrol the seas.

NATO, the European Union, China, India, Russia, and the United States have all sent warships to fight the Somali pirates, who hijacked 68 ships last year and extorted an estimated $60 million in ransom.

Most often, pirates nabbed in the process of trying to intercept commercial vessels are taken to Kenya to await trial. Today there are more than 135 Somalis being held in Kenyan jails, facing punishments of up to life in prison if convicted.

But many of these prisoners may yet go free because it can be very difficult to prove that armed men at sea are indeed planning to commandeer ships.

Most pirates claim they are merely fishermen. And bringing witnesses against them is complicated by the fact that the witnesses themselves are seamen who roam the globe and often cannot return for the trial.

International Threat

Russia's piracy initiative came as a surprise at the Security Council, because until now Moscow has not been a leader on the issue. That is despite the council's involvement for over a year and a half on how to rein in piracy off the Horn of Africa.

But Churkin said the piracy problem is growing and has become a major international threat. It is exactly the type of a problem, he said, that the UN is mandated to deal with.

Churkin also pointed to the instability in Somalia as directly contributing to the piracy problem.

He said there is a clear link between the spread of piracy off the Somali coast and the weak governance of the country. He said that if Somalia gets on a more stable political footing and can develop its own efficient coast guard, this will certainly affect the issue of piracy as well.

The introduction of the draft resolution is only the start of a lengthy process that will involve a number of legal and maritime experts before the resolution is put to a vote in the council.

But, overall, the proposal appears to have significant support among council members.

Japan's ambassador, Yukio Takasu, who is also the council's president for April, said the Russian proposal is timely and may gain quick support:

"The initial reaction was a very positive one, generally speaking, but at the same time comment was made by several members, for instance, you cannot just isolate piracy from root causes, situation on the ground," Takasu said. "So, therefore, that issue must be taken up in the context of the overall situation."

He also cautioned that the new Russian initiative shouldn't overlap with the existing efforts within the contact group.

One of the options that has been much discussed within the UN Contact Group on Piracy -- the world body's task force for the problem -- is to create a special court in one of the neighboring countries that will try all the pirates.

But some Contract Group members have expressed doubts over whether that approach can work because of the logistics involved, and because of the fragile political and economic balance in the countries neighboring Somalia.

The UN Contact Group on Piracy, which was established in January 2009, includes representatives of the five permanent Security Council members -- Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States -- as well as the African Union, the European Union, and NATO.