Coordinated action urged: piracy threatens UN lifeline to Somalia

Published on 07 October 2007

The heads of two United Nations agencies have made a joint call for concerted and coordinated international action to address the threat of piracy and armed robbery against ships in waters off the coast of Somalia

The heads of two United Nations agencies today made a joint call for concerted and coordinated international action to address the threat of piracy and armed robbery against ships

The continuing incidence of acts of piracy and armed robbery in these waters is of great concern
WFP Executive Director Sheeran

in waters off the coast of Somalia, amid growing concern about the perils it poses for commercial shipping, fishing and other vessels and the delivery of humanitarian assistance needed by hundreds of thousands of Somali men, women and children.


The Secretary General of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), Efthimios E. Mitropoulos, and the Executive Director of WFP, Josette Sheeran, warned that the actions of pirates operating in the waters off Somalia threaten the sea lanes in the region and could endanger the fragile supply line for food assistance to Somalis whose lives have been shattered by more than 15 years of civil conflict, political instability and recurring natural disasters.

Last month, the IMO Council, meeting in London, shared the concerns expressed by Secretary-General Mitropoulos and agreed with his proposals for further action to engage the international community in addressing the continuing incidence of acts of piracy and armed robbery in the region and, in particular, against ships carrying humanitarian aid to Somalia.

The IMO Council accordingly authorised Mr. Mitropoulos to request United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to bring the piracy situation off Somalia, once again, to the attention of the UN Security Council, so that, in turn, the Security Council requests the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia to take appropriate action.

Logisitical and security challenges

Such action could include giving consent to ships – as defined in Article 107 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea – to enter the country’s territorial waters when engaging in operations against pirates or suspected pirates and armed robbers endangering the safety of life at sea.

Delivering supplies to Somalia, both commercial goods and humanitarian aid, has been a logistical and security challenge ever since the collapse of the last national government in 1991.

Roadblocks controlled by militia groups across the country have hampered deliveries by road.

Assisting by sea

Transportation by sea should, in principle, be both cheaper and safer, but a recent increase in the frequency of attacks by pirates appears to have led to higher shipping costs and a dramatic reduction in the use of cargo vessels, particularly those employed in moving food assistance to Somalia from ports in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa.

“Close to 80 per cent of WFP’s assistance to Somalia is shipped by sea but, because of piracy, we have seen the availability of ships willing to carry food to the country cut by half,” said WFP Executive Director Sheeran.

“Pirates may have a romantic image on the silver screen these days, but the picture might not be quite so pretty from the point of view of someone stuck in a camp for internally displaced people in Somalia, dependent on food assistance for survival.


Much more has to be done to address this problem of piracy and, at WFP, we are much encouraged by the actions that IMO has taken recently for that purpose.”

So far this year there have been 15 attacks on vessels in or near Somali waters, which carry some of the highest risks of piracy in the world.

Two of these attacks involved WFP-contracted ships, and in one of these two incidents, a security guard was killed. During 2006, there were a total of 10 attacks.

Conflict and hunger

WFP aims to provide food assistance to one million people in Somalia this year, at a time when the country is once again plagued by brutal civil conflict.

Forecast crop failures in the south and central parts of the country, already hit by alarming levels of malnutrition, are raising fears of food shortages and rising prices, both of which could be ameliorated by securing an uninterrupted supply line.

“The continuing incidence of acts of piracy and armed robbery in these waters is of great concern”, IMO Secretary-General Mitropoulos said.

“In conjunction with other multi-faceted initiatives recently taken by IMO to address the issue effectively, this latest high-level approach to the Security Council, through Mr. Ban, will, I believe, help considerably in alleviating the situation, especially if support and assistance to ships is enhanced; and if Administrations and the shipping industry implement effectively the guidance that IMO has issued and the notices promulgated regularly by naval operations’ centres,” he said.


A new request from the UN Security Council would be in line with its Presidential Statement of 15 March 2006, issued after the matter had first been brought to its attention following adoption of resolution A.979(24) by the IMO Assembly.

The 2006 Presidential Statement encouraged UN Member States with naval vessels and military aircraft operating in international waters and airspace adjacent to the coast of Somalia, to be vigilant for any incident of piracy therein and to take appropriate action to protect merchant shipping (in particular ships being used to transport humanitarian aid) against any such act, in line with relevant international law.

Reduction in piracy

Subsequently, there had been a much-welcomed reduction in acts of piracy and armed robbery off Somalia, due, to a large extent, to the support provided by naval assets in the region, as a consequence of the well-established liaison by IMO and WFP with relevant naval operations’ centres.

However, as a result of the renewed rise in attacks on ships in recent months, IMO has lately taken a number of steps, including intensifying its existing coordination mechanism with WFP and the navies operating in the western Indian Ocean region, with a view to ensuring that the tracking of and, where necessary, the provision of assistance to merchant shipping is maintained and further strengthened.

Worrying situation

IMO has also recently issued a Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) circular (MSC.1/Circ.1233) warning maritime interests of what continues to be a worrying situation off Somalia and inviting Governments and organisations concerned to implement effectively the guidance to Administrations, industry and crew issued previously by IMO.

Additionally, in the context of the United Nations Open-ended Informal Consultative Process on Oceans and the Law of the Sea, IMO has requested the inclusion, within this year’s related General Assembly resolution, of a renewed call for all concerned to continue their co operation in combating acts of piracy and armed robbery and in ensuring the early release of ships and persons held hostage as a consequence of such acts.

More robust approach

“We would like to see a more coordinated and robust approach to dealing with the problem of piracy, from the Transitional Federal Government in Somalia, from neighbouring countries that have influence, and from the African Union,” said Sheeran.

“WFP is grateful for the continuing presence in the seas off Somalia of naval forces from several nations. They have been helpful on occasion in the past and they offer a potential deterrence to pirates. But we need to explore how these resources can be brought more heavily into play to protect shipping and, thereby, the delivery by sea of life-saving humanitarian assistance,” she said.