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Land side to maritime piracy

Piracy continues to be the most pressing ‘blue crime’ on the international security agenda, an online audience heard today. The webinar was opened by Prof Tim Edmunds of Bristol University who introduced the two authors of a book newly published by OUP, titled Pirate Lands: Governance and Maritime Piracy. As the title and sub-title suggest, while piracy may happen at sea, it is made possible on land.

Ursula Daxecker and Brandon Prins outlined their book and research, on such questions as: are poverty and environmental degradation the causes of piracy; can naval forces stop piracy; what of the link with other ‘blue crime’; and what might be the time-scale for reducing the risk of maritime piracy? The audience heard that any answer, whether by navies or other security forces and other, governmental measures on land, is not quick, nor cheap.

Brandon Prins began with the idea that non-state actors, except perhaps for terrorists, play an important but under-appreciated role in global affairs. Piracy occurs in weak states; but those states are not weak everywhere. Hence the need to understand local conditions, on land, for understanding the geography of maritime piracy. Much has been written by scholars in ‘terrorism studies’ not so much about piracy.

Weak law on land, but also lax law enforcement helps to explain why piracy happens. Soldiers and sailors can avoid arrest. But like all businesses, pirates need to be close to economic activity, because they need to recruit; to get up-front investment; and to be protected; and to have the active, or tacit, support of a local community and any local government.

Ursula Daxecker took over the presentation, and showed a map of global piracy incidents from 1985 to 2020, largely off the coast of east Africa, and around the Strait of Malacca in south east Asia; and off the west African coast. Some incidents were off India and China; and few on the open ocean. Besides location of incidents, she also pointed to pirate arrests in Indonesia and amount of night-time lighting. The meaning; pirate gangs and leaders are active where there is some governing capacity. They operate not in the least governed places, nor those places with the highest governances such as on the island of Java. Locals who were not pirates would know where the pirates lived; but would not report them to the authorities, whether because they gained from the piracy, or they were afraid to.

Pirates need some (black) market to operate in; whether to sell looted goods, or to recruit in cafes, and to collude with others – even to borrow guns. The academics carried out interviews in Indonesia, and some in Nigeria, with former pirates and others informed on the subject.

She went on to what we might expect to see from piracy; on Indonesia she was ‘cautiously optimistic’. An improvement in local naval capacity, and better policing on land, are important for the decline in piracy; although it might also take international intervention. The authors were more pessimistic about Nigeria, because of the country’s corruption. Despite a law passed in the west African nation last year, there’s still a high number of hijackings, the webinar heard; and if there is progress against piracy, that might only lead to an increase in other crimes.

The authors suggested a link between this study of piracy and organised crime more generally. On the one hand, there has been exaggerated claims of ‘pirate states’ and an emphasis on pirates as mafia-like. Beyond extreme cases, the authors found evidence also that there’s a ‘grey zone’, where criminals are not strong enough to govern on their own.

Among other scholars who also spoke were Anja Shortland, Professor of Political Economy at King’s College London, a researcher among other things into the market in kidnap for ransom. Echoing the book, she suggested piracy is a problem that manifests itself at sea, ‘but really it’s a land-based problem’. Why are some poor areas ‘pirate nests’ and others not, she asked. She suggested a ‘Goldilocks’ idea; that things where pirates can flourish are neither too hot or too cold. She praised the authors for the book’s ‘ground truth’ and quantitative analysis.

Later she spoke of the fall in trust in governments and more grass-roots governance to meet people’s needs during the covid pandemic. Organised crime groups have stepped into the void, she said, particularly in South America, to organise a response to the pandemic, whether to help people cope with the crisis by distributing food, and medical care, or enforcing curfews; ‘out-governing governments’, as she put it. As a result, the outcome of covid might be more crime, as organised crime comes out of the crisis with more credibility than government.

For more on the webinar ‘What are the root causes of maritime piracy?’ visit the SafeSeas website.


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