printable banner

U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Counter Piracy Update


Donna Hopkins, Coordinator for Counter Piracy and Maritime Security
Washington, DC
December 3, 2010




Date: 12/03/2010 Location: Wshington D.C. Description: Donna Hopkins, Coordinator for Counter Piracy and Maritime Security, U.S. Department of State, gives a an update on counter-piracy at the Washington Foreign Press Center. - State Dept Image

11:00 A.M. EDT

MODERATOR: Hello and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center. Today we have Coordinator Donna Hopkins, the Coordinator for Counter Piracy and Maritime Security in the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs. Without further ado, here is Coordinator Hopkins.

MS. HOPKINS: Thank you. And thanks very much for coming. It’s very nice to meet all of you. I’m going to make a few opening comments, and then I think it would be more fruitful for you to simply have a discussion and we can talk about the things that interest you (inaudible).

First of all, piracy off the coast of Somalia has been a problem for some years. Ever since January of 2009, the international community has taken official notice and action to try to develop coordinated strategies and plans to deal with this particular crime. Piracy is organized crime that is an artifact of the inability of Somalia to deal with its own territorial waters and its territory. Somalia has been without a government for almost 20 years, and there really is no authority in the territory in Somalia that can control or patrol the activities of the criminals that are taking ships and seaman hostage and extorting enormous amounts of ransom for them.

Piracy is not like the buccaneers of the 18th and 19th century. This is kidnapping for ransom, hostage taking, and extortion. This is an ugly crime that is hurting the people who are victimized by the crime, the commercial shipping industry whose insurance rates are being impacted, whose ships and cargos are being held for serious ransom. It is deeply damaging to the development efforts and trade and reconstruction efforts along the Eastern coast of Africa.

The people who suffer the most from piracy, aside from the hostages whose lives oftentimes are ruined by these efforts, are the Somali people and the other Eastern Africans, who frankly deserve better than to be lumped with as a gang of criminals. Pirate activities are done by a handful of criminals, and they have had a terrible impact on the development, peace, security, and stability of Eastern Africa. So make no mistake; there’s nothing glamorous or respectable about piracy off the coast of Somalia.

There was a self-serving narrative at one point that Somali pirates were there to protect their waters from the depredations of horrible, illegal fisherman and toxic dumping. I am not going to dispute that there may have been countries who fished illegally and perhaps did some damage to that community, but that could never justify the kind of hostage taking that Somalia’s pirates have wreaked on the international trade routes off the coast of Eastern Africa.

The international Contact Group for Piracy of the Coast of Somalia, which started in January of 2009, has brought together an unprecedented array of countries who are all seriously concerned about this phenomenon and who try to work together to find ways to combat it. The way the Contact Group does its work is through working groups that are chaired by different nations.

Working Group One, which is chaired by the United Kingdom, looks at military coordination and capacity-building efforts.

Working Group Two, which is chaired by Denmark, looks at how to deliver judicial consequences to pirates – all the legal, judicial, prosecution, incarceration efforts that can be used to hold pirates to account.

Working Group Three, which is chaired by the United States, concentrates on working with the commercial shipping industry to help the shippers do as much as they can to protect themselves from pirate attacks. There’s an enormous amount of work that’s been done by the shipping industry itself and published in the form of a guide called Best Management Practices that details how ships, ship owners, and ship captains can prepare and maneuver their ships and crew to avoid being boarded by pirates. The very best defense against piracy is never to be boarded in the first place.

Working Group Four, which is chaired by Egypt, is orchestrating the strategic communications and public diplomacy campaign to educate Somalis, other Africans, the Somali diaspora, and other nations to the terrible damage that is being done to African development by Somali pirates.

We’re also now, in the context of the Contact Group, considering creating a fifth working group which will deal with attacking the profit of this organized crime called piracy. We’re looking at connecting the international law enforcement and intelligence communities and going after the criminals who are funding pirates, who are demanding the ransoms, and who are laundering the illegal proceeds of these ransoms by investing them into other enterprises.

We’re going to make serious international effort to track the money, where it comes from and where it goes. Because any form of organized crime tends to overlap with other forms of organized crime, the ransom proceeds that are going into Eastern Africa could also be funding illegal arms, possibly terrorism, trafficking, human trafficking, proliferation, and other forms of criminal and highly dangerous activity. So the international community, I think, is becoming very serious about tackling the financial flows that enable piracy. That, I think, is where we can have the most strategic impact.

I’d like to say a few words about judicial processes, and then I think we can just open it up to your questions. One of the great difficulties we have in countering piracy is that it’s difficult to prosecute and imprison pirates. There are many nations whose ships are actively interdicting pirates. They’re picking up and arresting pirates. But they’re having difficulty determining what to do with the pirates.

In actual fact, piracy is a crime of universal jurisdiction. That means – and that’s been standing international law for many years. It’s reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention and in Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts of Violence Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation, to which practically all nations, maritime nations, are party. These conventions reflect the idea that piracy, as a crime of universal jurisdiction, may be prosecuted in the national courts of any nation.

Now, some nations whose ships have picked up pirates are reluctant to bring the pirates back to their own courts for many reasons. Some of them are practical, some of them are political. But the fact of the matter is that they could be prosecuted. One practical difficulty of the prosecution has been: What do you then do with the convicts? Where do they serve their time in prison, and what do you do with them after they’re released from prison?

Because Somalia has no capable government, and most countries have no diplomatic relations with that country, and because the conditions in Somalia are so terribly unstable, unsafe, insecure, and inhumane many countries will not even consider repatriating captured pirates to Somalia. Therefore, there is a concern that if they capture pirates, try the pirates, and if the pirates are acquitted, or even if they’re convicted and serve their sentences, those countries fear that they could be saddled for the long term with asylees, with people who would seek political asylum and remain in the prosecuting country. They would be de facto asylees, because they could not be politically returned to Somalia at this point.

So one thing the Contact Group legal advisors in Working Group Two are working with – and we’re working very closely with the United Nations – is to try to build prisons in Somalia and develop a legal framework for the transfer of convicted Somali pirates, after they’ve been convicted elsewhere, back to Somalia to serve their sentences in UN-constructed and monitored prisons in Somalia. That is the most humane thing to do, and as long as the prisons are operated according to human rights standards, it is the right thing to do, we believe. That project is ongoing. The United Nations is actively supportive and involved, and we think that is one very important avenue of action.

I’d like to make one point as far as prosecution goes. The United States recently tried two cases of pirates that were picked up off the coast of Somalia. One group of pirates had attacked the USS. Ashland, which is a Navy frigate. The other had attacked the USS Nicholas, which is a Navy cruiser. You would think they would have more sense than to attack Navy warships, but they attack ships of opportunity and often don’t know what they’re getting into. These two particular groups of pirates were apprehended by the U.S. Navy and they were transported back to Norfolk, Virginia where they stood trial and were convicted.

These cases represent the first piracy trials and convictions in the United States in over 150 years. The first trial actually was the first in 150 years. 1861 was the earliest previous piracy trial. And the first conviction, which was two weeks ago, was the first piracy conviction since 1819 in the United States.

So I can say with some confidence that the United States is willing and able to convict pirates off the coast of Somalia for crimes that are committed there in U.S. courts. We’re committed to ending impunity for pirates. We would like very much if other countries would do the same thing. And some countries are. The Netherlands, France, and Germany are prosecuting pirates, and one of the cases in The Netherlands has resulted in a conviction.

There was a concerted effort among the international community to get regional countries, including Kenya and Seychelles, to prosecute. And I will say that Kenya has been very good about accepting and prosecuting pirates that are apprehended by international forces. Seychelles has become more active recently.

So there is interest in other regional states in contributing what they can in the form of prosecution to helping solve this problem. Much more needs to be done. Countries need to get serious about prosecuting and about tracking and ending piracy proceeds.

I think with that I’ll stop and see if there are any questions or just things you’d like to discuss.

MODERATOR: As we move to Q&A, please identify yourself and state your name and publication. And go right ahead with the first person that has a question.

QUESTION: I am Aya Lee Maher of Asahi Shimbun. Do you expect terror attacks to happen on commercial ships, similar to the attack of the M. Star, the Japanese ship?

MS. HOPKINS: I don't know, but I will tell you that if they do happen, it’s probably not Somali pirates. That would not be good for the piracy business. The pirates want money. This is a business. It’s not good for business to start blowing up your potential targets. So I frankly don’t think there’s much of a relationship there, and I suspect that the pirates themselves are pretty irritated about the group that did that.

Other questions? Sure.

QUESTION: I know China also participating – sorry. (Inaudible) China. And China also participate in anti-piracy (inaudible) Somalia area. And I just wonder if they have any coordination or cooperation with the action led by the United States.

MS. HOPKINS: Yes. Actually, the United States doesn’t lead this action. This is a very collegial, cooperative effort. China has been a very active and very productive collaborator. China’s naval forces are doing a magnificent job. They are working very hard with the coalition maritime forces, with the NATO forces, with the EU forces, and with the other independent deployers. We call all the countries who have naval forces but are not part of one of the international missions – we call them independent deployers. China, Russia, India, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and other countries have ships that work together in the international naval force that’s patrolling the Gulf of Aden, the Somali basin, and sometimes farther out into the Indian Ocean now. And China has been very, very productive and active.
QUESTION: So how do the United States and China coordinate? Do they share information?
MS. HOPKINS: Yes. The way that’s done is in Bahrain, through a series of meetings, called Shared Awareness and Deconfliction, SHADE – it’s called the SHADE mechanism – those meetings are hosted at the headquarters of the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, and all of the countries who have naval missions meet about every other month, more frequently if necessary, and share information. They share schedules and they, in a very consensus-based way, agree on who’s going to do what. So it’s a very collaborative international effort. The United States does not lead it. That forum is co-chaired by EU NAVFOR and Coalition Maritime Forces. And the command of the Coalition Maritime Forces, even though it’s headquartered at the U.S. naval activity, actually rotates among the countries who participate in coalition naval forces. So the United States is just one participant in that forum, along with all the others.
And I would like to say a little bit about that. It’s a remarkable international effort. Can you imagine anywhere else that NATO, Russia, India, China, the European Union, Indonesia, Thailand, and Singapore have all worked together as a single coordinating naval force? It’s never happened in history. It’s remarkable. And the naval cooperation and the political cooperation has been excellent on counter-piracy.
QUESTION: And I know the maritime consultation between the United States and China was held in Hawaii last month. Is it one of the topics dealing with this consultation?
MS. HOPKINS: I don’t think so, partly because – are you talking – in Honolulu at the Pacific Command? I don’t know whether piracy was even discussed at that forum. I don’t know anything about it. I suspect not.
Piracy now is not really an Asia Pacific phenomenon. It tends to be unique to the Horn of Africa because it’s the only place on the globe right now where there is such a long coastline of a failed state in a strategically important area. The piracy that normally occurs in the Asia Pacific region, especially the Straits of Malacca, which got a lot of attention about 20 years ago, was a different kind of piracy. That was murder, armed robbery, robbery of cargos, and theft of ships. It was not hostage taking. Unlike off the coast of Somalia, that model of piracy is extortion, kidnapping, and hostage taking for ransom. That’s a completely different business model than the Asia Pacific piracy phenomenon.
So the international community addressed the Straits of Malacca through cooperative mechanisms. Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, and other Asia Pacific nations cooperated under a program called ReCAAP, the Regional Coordination for Action Against Piracy Program, and I think have done a very good job of managing the piracy problem in Asia Pacific.
Unfortunately, the geopolitical situation off the Horn of Africa doesn’t lend itself to that kind of international cooperation. The countries along the Gulf of Aden are politically very stressed. They have serious problems – economic, social, governance, and other problems – and they are not able to cooperate in the same way that Asia Pacific countries can cooperate.
So Somalia presents a completely different kind of challenge for the international community. And Japan actually changed its laws to enable its out-of-area deployment to combat piracy, and this is fantastic. I think it’s fantastic for the stability of the entire region, as well as for the national and bilateral interests that are served by this kind of cooperation.
QUESTION: I have many questions.
MS. HOPKINS: Well, I have lots of time.
QUESTION: A couple weeks ago, the chiefs of American Navy, Admiral Roughead, had a speech in the National Press Club saying that he think – he thinks the model of anti-piracy, the cooperation between the two countries, could be copied –
MS. HOPKINS: I agree.
QUESTION: -- in South China Sea.
MS. HOPKINS: Good.
QUESTION: What do you think about it?
MS. HOPKINS: I think if the countries in that area want to cooperate in that kind of way – the way it’s being done, the way the SHADE mechanism working, I think really is a model for international coordination, because there is no command and control, there is no relinquishment of sovereignty, there is no reason for countries to be politically disturbed by something that’s being done because they simply don’t have to participate. I think that kind of voluntary cooperation is an excellent model that could be copied other places as appropriate and as countries choose to participate.
The SHADE mechanism, to some extent, looks like the Proliferation Security Initiative, which is an entirely voluntary – it’s not really an organization even. It’s just kind of a concept where countries who are concerned about proliferation of nuclear material can simply choose to cooperate and share information and work together to prevent proliferation. The SHADE mechanism is the same thing. It is a way for countries whose naval forces, whose governments, can choose to cooperate on piracy and can choose to coordinate their actions. But they aren’t required to do it, so there’s no political imperative or fear that your forces could be required to do something that’s against your national interest. So it’s a very good model for the future.
You had a question.
QUESTION: Good morning. I’m Dagmar Benesova with World Business Press, Slovakia. Well, my question is that many times it happens that the ships are carrying the humanitarian aid end up in the hands of pirates. How the international community or how the United States and many other countries – how do you protect these ships that carry humanitarian aid? Do you give them some advice or – and do you follow how this aid finish? For example, it’s in the hands of pirates; do you follow what are they doing or track this aid then?
MS. HOPKINS: The European Naval Force Operation Atalanta was originally created to protect World Food Program shipping that was going into Mogadishu and to other ports in Eastern Africa because ships were being hijacked and held for ransom by the pirates. Those ships no longer get attacked and held for ransom because the Naval Forces are protecting them. However, there still is a problem that other humanitarian shipments – not World Food Program shipments but perhaps other bilateral food program shipments – when they gets into the port, even if the ships aren’t hijacked, unfortunately, organizations like al-Shabaab steal the food . They steal it, they sell it, they keep it for their own use.
The way the international community tries to deal with that is through the African Union’s Mission in Somalia, the AMISOM. The AMISOM troops try to safeguard the humanitarian aid and see that it is distributed to the people who need it.
One of the unfortunate problems that Somalia is faced with is that its al-Shabaab, which is a terrorist organization which is extorting and murdering its own citizens and is unbelievably brutal, is stealing the aid that the international community, including the United States, is trying to get to starving people. It’s – well, you can imagine what I think about that. It’s despicable.
But there’s a limited amount that any country like the United States or European countries can do because we have no troops in Somalia. The mission that actually is resourced by the international community to try to bring some protection to the people in Somalia is called AMISOM. That’s a UN mission. And I know the United States worked very hard to try to resources and get contributing nations to deliver troops and training and finances and logistic supports and all the things that the AMISOM troops need to be able to protect humanitarian aid delivery and bring some kind of security to Somalia.
So I think that AMISOM is the major way the international community is trying to help. Hundreds of millions of dollars in food aid is going into Somalia. A lot of it is hijacked, but not by pirates. It’s stolen by al-Shabaab.
QUESTION: And how do you think the cooperation is working?
MS. HOPKINS: I actually don’t know. I’m not an expert on AMISOM or, frankly, an expert on Somalia. I think they have a lot of challenges. There’s not enough troops in AMISOM to really do the kind of job that needs to be done in Somalia. But I actually can’t comment on it because I truly don’t know.
QUESTION: And can I have another question?
MS. HOPKINS: Sure.
QUESTION: You mentioned that one of the solutions is for pirates is to create prisons in Africa. How far is all of this project –
MS. HOPKINS: The United Nations --
QUESTION: Yes.
MS. HOPKINS: Right now, the UN Organization for Drugs and Crime, UNODC, is being funded through various United Nations programs, and they’re building two prisons that I am aware of. There may be more, but there are at least two. One is in Hargeisa in Somaliland, and the other, I believe, is in Bossaso in Puntland. They’re actively being constructed. I think the one in Hargeisa is almost complete. The staff there will be local staff. They’ll be trained and monitored and overseen by United Nations staff. And once they actually open and are certified to operate at United Nations standards, they’ll be able to accept pirates that are convicted and sentenced to prison. I’m not sure about the actual status of the prison construction further south in Puntland.
The United Nations is also actively supporting capacity building in Kenya and Seychelles. I believe they are helping Seychelles complete a new prison. Seychelles is a small country; their prison facilities are not very large, and there are lots of pirates. So the Seychelles facility, I think, is almost at capacity already. We in the international community have spent lots of money with Kenya to try to build the capacity of their judicial system and their prison so that they can help prosecute as well. So those are the major benefits. Questions?
QUESTION: My name is Ivan Pilshchikov. I'm from ITAR-TASS News Agency, Russian Federation. And my question is: Are there any plans about creating special international tribunal to persecute Somali pirates or some similar body?
MS. HOPKINS: That is one option that's under consideration. As you probably know, Russia called for a U.S. Security Council report on judicial options. That report was released last July, and it was quite a good report. What it did was take the work that had been done in Working Group Two of the Contact Group and lay out very clearly what the universe of options are and their pros and their cons. One of those options would be an international court, and there were several different versions of that, whether along the model of the court to try the war crimes for Rwanda or the Lockerbie court that was set up in Scotland to try the Libyan citizens for the Lockerbie bombing. There are lots of different possibilities. And right now, the United Nations has a special representative for legal and judicial matters, Mr. Jack Lang, who is a French diplomat. And his report to the Secretary General on which would be the best option is due to the Secretary General by the end of this year.
Now, the United States’ view is that an international court is probably not the right thing to do because -- there are actually three reasons. First, even if you created the court, which would be extremely expensive and take a long time and we don't know how anybody would pay for that, it still doesn't answer the problem of where those criminals would be incarcerated, because there is no such thing as an international prison. So a court is not going to solve the problem of where to put these guys in prison.
Second is: No country has agreed to either host or pay for such a court. It has to be put somewhere, and if no one is willing to host it, that's a bit of an obstacle.
The third is: It's not necessary. Every country on this planet can prosecute pirates in their own national court. And we believe that if the prosecutions could take place in domestic courts and then the convicts sent straight back to Somalia to be -- to serve their sentences in prison, that there would be much more international support for domestic prosecution, because an international court is a serious and expensive undertaking. We think it should be reserved for the most serious crimes -- genocide, crimes against humanity, massacres like those that occurred in Rwanda, or terrorist acts like the bombing of the plane over Lockerbie. Those are serious, very high-impact, but low-frequency crimes. We think those are the kind of crimes that justify the extent and difficulty of setting up an international court. Piracy is simple extortion.
QUESTION: So can I say that the United States oppose this idea?
MS. HOPKINS: We have never been in favor of it. If the United Nations decided to set up an international court or a tribunal, we would certainly work with that decision. We just don't think it's the smart thing to do. Plus, it doesn't solve the problem of incarceration. So it's only 50 percent of the answer anyway. And if we're going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to create a court, then we need to figure out where to put the people in prison, and the court can't answer that question. Keep in mind, too, that the expense involved in setting up an international court is not just the cost of the courthouse and the justices and the paralegals and the filings. You also have to have a place for the suspects to be housed; you have to pay for them to get transported and supported; you have to pay for them to get sent somewhere afterward; you have to pay for their defense attorneys; -- there's also the question of whose laws are going to apply in this court.
One of the options is setting up a Somali court or a special Somali chamber in a third country, for instance, Kenya, or Seychelles, or Tanzania, or somewhere relatively local. None of those countries have agreed to host such a court. And the international community can't force a country to host an international court. And if you're going to set it up in -- for instance, in The Hague or Paris or Berlin or Moscow, then why don't you just try them in domestic courts to begin with? It is much cheaper; it is practical. I understand that countries don't want to do that because they don't want to be saddled with de facto convict asylees into their social systems. So the answer really has to be to build Somali prisons to put pirates in -- the position of the United States is an international court is not necessary, it's expensive, and it doesn't solve the problem of incarceration.
QUESTION: So how do you deal with the pirates right now? Just catch and release?
MS. HOPKINS: No, catch and prosecute.
QUESTION: Who prosecutes?
MS. HOPKINS: Our opinion is that the flag state, owner of the ship or state of nationality of the crew should prosecute. The flag registry, the open registry, the flags of convenience business means that the major registry countries are probably not going to be able to prosecute. Panama, Liberia, Marshall Islands, Antigua and Barbuda -- none of those countries can accept the burden of prosecution. And if you get right down to it, the people who are being victimized by the pirates are the owners of the ship and the crewmen, so the countries whose nationals are being held hostage. The Republic of the Philippines has more hostages than any other country. You would think that the Philippines would want to prosecute this, the pirates who are literally ruining the lives of their citizens. The Ukraine, Russia, Malaysia, Greece -- the hostages, the merchant seamen come from all over the world.
It is my opinion that the countries whose interests are attacked by criminals should prosecute the criminals. And that is the owners of the ships and the nations whose crewmen are being held hostage. Because in many cases, these hostages, who can be held of years -- their lives are ruined. Their families' lives are ruined. They may not be getting paid. They don't get paid much to begin with. But if the company is not paying their salary because they're not working, their families could be starving to death. And the emotional trauma of being held hostage for years in a foreign country in terrible conditions is debilitating.
It's such a despicable crime that pirates should not be allowed to go free. They need to be prosecuted. So until they're prosecuted -- really seriously prosecuted, we're going to continue to have this problem. Countries need to get serious about prosecuting. There's a bit of a problem -- and Working Group Two is working on it -- improving the ability of ship and naval forces to build evidence packages that will stand up in court.
There's a lot of effort going into instruction on how to build packages of evidence that would allow for effective prosecution in any court. So Working Group Two is working very hard to provide model legislation to make it easier to prosecute pirates and to work with the law enforcement and the naval forces so that they can design strong evidence packages so these cases can be prosecuted.
QUESTION: During Russia-NATO Council discussions a lot was said about extending cooperation on piracy. How do you think that cooperation between Russian and NATO and Russia and the United States could be expanded.
MS. HOPKINS: Well, I think it's working very well right now. Russia was a founding member of the Contact Group for Piracy off the Coast of Somalia. Russia’s delegation to the first Plenary and every contact with them has been very productive and fruitful, including at working group meetings. So Russian cooperation on counter-piracy has been excellent at the political level, the operational military level, and the tactical level.. I don't know what more we need to do, except continue the excellent cooperation we've already accomplished.
The United States and Russia have slightly different views on how to deal with judicial consequences. They’re natural and perfectly reasonable disagreements, and they're not something we can't work through, which we are working through, especially at the United Nations, to debate the relative merits of different options for judicial prosecution. It's the right and healthy way to go about this. But I think as the Russian naval forces continue to operate effectively and safely with the NATO and EU independently deployed forces, that gives us opportunity in the future and this goes back to what Admiral Roughead said at this press briefing that if these nations who want to cooperate on other shared maritime challenges -- anti-proliferation, arms and human trafficking, smuggling -- then we have a good operational basis on which to cooperate and a good political basis on which to cooperate. We don't have to agree on everything to be able to work effectively together on the things we do agree on. And I think that's a very healthy basis for a relationship.
I almost hate to say this, but piracy is as much an opportunity as it is a challenge, because it has demonstrated unprecedented solidarity among nations. Piracy is a bad thing, it's harming all of us, nobody likes it, everybody wants to stop it, and we're working together very well to develop strategies to end it. It's a hard problem, and we're not going to fix it tomorrow or next week or next year, but we are eventually going to fix it, and we're going to do it by working together.
More questions?
MODERATOR: If you've not already asked, please go ahead.
MS. HOPKINS: If there are no questions, I think that's it. Thank you very much for your attention, and I'm happy to stay and chat with anyone who would like to chat off the record.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. HOPKINS: Thank you.

# # #