Whispers in the Indian Ocean

  It is being whispered in some quarters that Somali piracy is defeated.

The scourge of the Indian Ocean crept into our consciousness in 2005, was caricatured in South Park in 2009 following the hijack of the MV Maersk Alabama, rampaged out of control in 2010 and 2011, before being suppressed in 2012.

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Capture of MV Symrni
Courtesy of OCEANUSlive.org

The EUNAVFOR statistics are impressive. Attacks are down from a high of 176 in 2011 to just 3 in 2013. Sightings of pirate attack groups are rare and boardings rarer still. No vessel has been successfully hijacked and placed under pirate control since the capture of the MV Symrni in May 2012.

There is no question that the situation has dramatically improved but are we at the end game? In order to answer the question you need to go back to the beginning of the problem.

Why and how did it start?

Back in 2005 the Somalia was devastated and the economy shattered. The coastal fishing communities had been hard hit by a series of economic and social hammer blows. The small fishing industry which provided 5% of GDP collapsed in the 1990s following the fall of the Siad Barre regime.

Villages were hard hit in 2004 by the Asian tsunami reportedly displacing 5,000 people. European and Asian fishermen surged into Somali waters depleting fish stocks and driving local fishermen from their own fishing grounds.

These conditions provided the breeding ground for pirates while the lack of government authority and endemic corruption enabled pirates to operate from safe havens on the Somali coast.

Piracy proved to be a lucrative business model. It had relatively small start up costs and potential life changing returns. The risks were high but as an alternative to subsistence living it was an attractive proposition. The “entrepreneurs” and organisers moved in, and it soon grew from a cottage industry to a multi-million dollar business.

So what has changed?

Somali fishermen in Mogadishu.  Courtesy of AU-UN IST PHOTO / STUART PRICE

Somali fishermen in Mogadishu.
Courtesy of AU-UN IST PHOTO / STUART PRICE

Despite improved governance and recent economic growth, Somalia remains a chronically poor country. GDP in 2012 was assessed as $6 billion for a population of 10 million Somalis – compare that with the $208 billion for the same size Greek population. The vast majority of Somalis continue to live on or below subsistence levels.

The piracy business model continues to a good one and the guns, skiffs and engines remain available. A start up cost of thousands of dollars has the potential return of millions, providing a life changing lump sum for the lowest paid pirate and untold wealth for the key investors. The rewards of piracy, like drugs, will continue to appeal to the disadvantaged of society.

Some of the older pirates, notably Mohamed “Afweyne”Abdi Hassan, have gone into retirement – or other lucrative employment – but the younger middle order are still there, hungry to secure their financial positions and promote their standing in Somali folklore.

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Pirate guards on a captured fishing boat 2013
Courtesy EUNAVFOR

So to answer the question, is Somali piracy dead, I would answer – No.

The battle to deter piracy at sea is proving effective for the time being. The combined measures of better coordinated maritime forces, the deployment of armed vessel security detachments (VSD) provided by private security companies and the adoption of Best Management Practise by ship owners have reduced opportunities for attacks.

But from all other angles the pirates’ motivation, intent and capability remain intact. All they are waiting for is the opportunity for success.Eventually the costs of the security operation estimated at between $2.7 – 3.1 billion will start to bite.

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Courtesy of US Navy

Shipping companies will take risks – currently only 35% of vessels carry VSD – to reduce costs and vessels will be taken. Maybe not in the numbers seen previously, but enough to maintain the business aspirations of pirate investors.

The problem is that the high profile security operation is only a means to an end. It buys time and stability to solve the problem. It is the bandage applied to the wound while the antibiotics take effect.

So what needs to be done?

Alongside the strategic tasks of establishing a functioning political system, fighting corruption and increasing national governance there are two practical matters that should addressed.

There needs to be much greater cooperation between the international law enforcement agencies to enable them to go after the system – money and investors – that enables the multi-million dollar business.

More fundamentally, we must recognise that the long term solution to piracy lies on land. More needs to be done to help coastal communities develop an alternative economy to reduce piracy’s appeal. An answer lies in establishing a sustainable fishing industry to support the local communities.

There is no reason why this cannot be done and every reason why it should be done. Interestingly, it can probably be done at a fraction of the cost of maintaining the fight against piracy at sea for another 5 years. More of that in my next piece.

 Photos courtesy of AU UN IST PHOTO / Ilyas A. Abukar & Tobin Jones

Courtesy of AU UN IST PHOTO / Ilyas A. Abukar & Tobin Jones

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Iron Lady of the South Atlantic?

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Not everyone thought well of Mrs Thatcher

In March, as the bells tolled, the people of Britain remembered Margaret Thatcher for better or for worse.

She was also remembered in the South Atlantic by the Falkland Islanders who owe their continuing autonomy to Mrs T’s resolve in 1982.

In another part of the South Atlantic the people of Argentina should have given thanks to the grocer’s daughter for the role she played in bringing down the Junta. The Iron Lady believed in democracy, she believed in doing what was right and in doing so opened the way for the return to democracy in Argentina.

The Falkland Islands were catapulted to prominence following the Argentine invasion in 1982. The war changed the British view of the Islands; they were no longer inconvenient smudges on the map to be sloughed off; they became the manifestation of Thatcher’s revitalised Britain.

I never visited Argentina during that period of new democracy but I got a sense that Les Malvinas were not, at that time, a national issue. People were focussed on democracy and the economy.

In the 90’s, I enjoyed very amicable relations with the Argentinian officers with whom I worked on various overseas military missions. The Falkland Islands were rarely mentioned and we spent more time reminiscing about Maradona’s “hand of god” goal in 1986.

Now things are very different. President Cristina Fernandez Kirchner has shrilly pursued Les Malvinas as far and wide as the UN and the Vatican. Her response to the overwhelming vote in March to remain a British Oversea’s Territory ( the results showed that 99.8 per cent of the Islanders had voted yes, with a 92 per cent turnout among the approximately 1,650 Falkland Islands eligible to vote) was to declare that it was as if “a bunch of squatters were to vote on whether or not to keep occupying a building illegally.”

Another Argentine politician, Senator Daniel Filmus described the vote as a “publicity stunt”. He said “We must denounce this trickery that pretends to represent the popular participation of an implanted population.” These are extraordinary remarks from the child of European immigrants, who now acts as a democratic leader.

The question which perplexes me is why do the Argentinian leaders expend such energy on the issue of Les Malvinas? England and France came to working arrangements over the Channel Islands, which are only tens of miles offshore, many centuries ago.

Is it the sense of loss? Hardly. The Falkland Islands are 500 kilometres away from the Argentine mainland – apply that in Europe and it takes you from Dover to the town of Wiesbaden in Germany. They were never continuously settled by Argentinians and it appears to have been a dead issue between 1849 – 1941. There is no emotional similarity to the forced division of Ireland or Germany.

Is it a useful means to divert the Argentine population from the economic woes? Perhaps. The Argentine economy is struggling with reduced growth (2.6%) and rising inflation with an official figure of 10.5% – disputed by the International Monetary Fund – and the real figure assessed to be around 25%. Difficult days for the majority of the population.

Is it a means of capitalising on the South Atlantic oil bonanza? Possibly. It is estimated that the Falkland Islands could receive up to $10 billion in tax revenues and royalties over a 25 year period. However the Argentine economy is rated at 22 in the world with a GDP of $474 billion, which makes the Falkland Island oil income a mere drop in the ocean.

Is it to enhance de Kirchner’s personal standing? Probably.

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President Christina Fernandez de Kirchner

Christina de Kirchner has set her sights on changing the Argentine constitution to enable her to have a third, and who knows possibly fourth consecutive, term in office. But she is beset with falling ratings and accusations of corruption in the Argentine media.

Who could blame her if she aspired to portray herself as Argentina’s Iron Lady by reclaiming Les Malvinas?

The problem is that de Kirchner has no chance of achieving this and runs the very real risk of making herself look naive in the world’s eye. The Falkland’s issue is deadlocked with de Kirchner refusing to hold discussions with the Islanders, the British Government refusing to hold discussions without the Islanders, and the Islanders refusing to hold discussions on sovereignty issues.

Meanwhile the UN and the US sit on the sidelines encouraging the parties to find a resolution, in the knowledge that there is little they can either do or want to do to influence matters.

Ironically, the only person who could break the deadlock is de Kirchner herself. If she took the long view and studied the work of the British and Irish governments, in the run up to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and the subsequent amendment to Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution in 1999, she might be able to come up with a cunning plan to normalise the South Atlantic to everyone’s mutual benefit and great personal acclaim as a stateswoman.

Is President Cristina de Kirchner brave enough to take bold decisions?

kirchener 1Only time will tell if she can become Argentina’s Iron Lady.

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What is the worst sin?

What is the worst sin? It’s an interesting question to ask yourself or indeed to throw into a faltering conversation. On the occasion I did this in my local pub the initial reaction was a stunned silence, as people struggled to understand how the topic of conversation could possibly have been changed from racing.

Once on to the topic, people ran through the usual list of crimes – murder, blasphemy, adultery, paedophilia – before they focused on the less well defined offences such as bankers’ bonuses, indifferent care for the elderly and the FA’s failure to utilise goal line technology.

What became clear is that sin still has a meaning in our daily lives. It is used entirely within its definition¹, derived from the Old English synn and related to Latin sons/sont meaning “guilty”, as an immoral act considered to be a transgression against divine law or an act regarded as a serious or regrettable fault, offence, or omission.

Sinning is not necessarily illegal but it is a transgression against our fellow human beings.

So in answer to the question – which is the greatest sin – I offer a choice of three.

First up is Excess. This is an amount of something that is more than necessary, permitted, or desirable and is driven by greed or power.

Excess was the major driver for expansionist wars and underpinned the exploitation of colonialism. It brought about the collapse of the financial markets and is currently draining our planet’s resources. As Goethe wrote “ unlimited activity, of whatever kind, must end in bankruptcy”. There is a strong case for excess as it may well lead to the destruction of our planet and the demise of mankind.

Planet Earth in peril from excess

Our endangered planet

Next up is Self Interest, which is defined as one’s personal interest or advantage, especially when pursued without regard for others. Many people see nothing wrong with self interest on the basis that it is merely looking after yourself, but the key issue is “without regard to others”.

It is this aspect that makes self interest so pernicious because it deprives humans of the generosity of spirit and politeness that oil the gears of society. As Jean-Paul Sartre observed “Hell is other people”.

Self interest ignores other people’s desires. It blinds individuals to the wider issues, destroys debate and undermines democracy. As Gough Whitlam so eloquently pointed out “the punters know that the horse named Morality rarely gets past the post; whereas the nag named Self Interest always runs a good race.”

Finally, there is Betrayal which is defined as the action of betraying one’s country, a group, or a person; treachery.

Betrayal is a highly emotive subject because it cuts at the very heart of trust and friendship. It is no surprise that “Et tu, Brute?” are the final, highly charged words uttered by Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play of that name.

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Benedict Arnold
Reviled American traitor

It is no surprise that Judas Iscariot became infamous for his betrayal of Christ, despite being preordained to do so. Benedict Arnold is still reviled for his treachery against the young America fighting for independence. Traitors and informers are subject to the worst possible sanctions.

Betrayal is an attack on trust and trust, once broken, fully can never be restored. The actual elements of betrayal may be small in themselves but the act creates ripples disproportionate to the events.

It undermines every level of relationship and belief – personal, business, establishments and politics. It reduces the group cohesion and ultimately the group’s chances of survival.

There are two very interesting manifestations of this today with the waning support for the British Conservative party, over the introduction of gay marriage, and the Catholic Church’s crisis over child abuse.

Neither issue is cataclysmic in itself but both have become highly destructive because they are perceived as betrayals. One because the gay marriage never featured in the election manifesto: the other because the Church betrayed those individuals entrusted to its care.

So there you have the three great sins against humanity – excess, self interest and betrayal – but which is the worst?

Excess has created more misery and will eventual destroy us, unless we can find Aristotle’s “green mean of moderation in all things”. Self interest will drive us apart, undermine our democratic ideals and set the conditions for excess, while betrayal will attack the bonds of trust, friendship and belief.

I back betrayal because it destroys our group cohesion that has been fundamental to man’s survival and development over the millennia.

You, however, may have other views.

Just be careful where you ask the question. Do so in a pub near closing time and you may well be declared the worst possible sin against humanity. Good luck.

¹ All definitions taken from the English Oxford Dictionary.

Women in Battle: Progress or Retrograde Step

Last week the US Secretary of State for Defence announced that the US armed forces would allow women to serve in small group combat units, which President Obama and many other commentators have welcomed as a “historic step”. There is no doubt that this is a historic step, but does it move humanity forwards or backwards?

The subsequent discussion in the British media focused on the familiar topics of equal rights across the genders, of which this is just another facet, physical issues and effects of group cohesiveness of women serving alongside men in combat.

A senior journalist dismissed anyone who disagreed with the step as a stegosaurus, but there is more to the discussion than simple gender equality. There is the whole aspect of the development of civilisation.

The facts are these. British women already serve on the front line, many have engaged the enemy with their weapons, some have been wounded and a few have died.

British soldiers in Afghanistan

British soldiers in Afghanistan

Women live alongside men and share the hardship in Afghanistan. Women have mental endurance and act with comparable courage; some have received medals in recognition of their gallantry in the face of the enemy.

Women deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated that they can hack it with the men.

However, women are hampered by a weaker physique and were identified, in an Army

British infantrymen on patrol in Afghanistan

British infantrymen on patrol in Afghanistan

study in 2002, as being more prone to muscular-skeletal injuries than their male counter parts. This would be exacerbated by service in the infantry where typical fighting loads are in excess of 60 lbs per man; a weight that has remained fairly consistent since the days of Marius’s Mules in the first century BC.

That said, I have no doubt that there would be a cohort of women who would have the physique and durability to serve alongside men in combat units. The question is, should they?

In addressing this, it is important to understand that women serving in the front line would be stepping into very different territory when they take up close combat roles.  Currently women, along with 60% of the men, serve in roles that support combat – signallers, artillery, intelligence, engineers and  logistics.

British engineers building a bridge in Afghanistan

British engineers building a bridge in Afghanistan

Although their primary role may be in front line, they are usually one step removed from the killing; engineers building a bridge will only fight to enable them to complete their task. This is fundamentally different from the combat – infantry and armoured – units whose raison d’être is to seek out the enemy and kill them as efficiently as possible.

This is brutal and dehumanising work, as described by Captain Doug Beattie * “I heard the detonation and sprinted forward following the path of the grenade. Engulfed by dust and smoke I opened fire spraying all round the room…..I could just make out the prone body of a Taliban fighter….I leant forward and thrust my bayonet towards the body as hard as I could…..There was barely any resistance, the sharpened blade sliding deeper, quickly disappearing.” Savage work indeed, but this is the stark reality of infantry work and few who are involved in it are left unaffected.

British infantrymen fighting at close quarters

British infantrymen fighting at close quarters

Since the First World War Britain has done much, in the interests of humanity and efficiency, to reduce the pool of manpower exposed to close combat.  We no longer deploy youngsters below the age of 18 on operational tours nor do we deliberately expose older individuals to close combat. It is highly improbable that Boy Cornwell ** and Lieutenant Colonel Douglas-Hamilton *** would get an opportunity to win a Victoria Cross in today’s forces.

This brings me back to women, who have been exempted from close combat by culture and tradition. Is it right to draw them into this trade where the emphasis is on killing, when we have taken such steps to narrow the parameters of service in response to social advances?  Is this a step forward for civilisation or is it a retrograde step for society in the name of gender equality?

Many intelligent and ambitious young women will argue hard that in the interests of equality, women should have the right to take their place alongside men if they are able to do so. They will point out that we have already crossed the Rubicon with women fighter pilots and Apache crews but these activities lack the intimacy of close combat and may be easier to rationalise.

Apache helicopter on patrol

Apache helicopter on patrol

The issue may turn out to be a side show with service in combat units a niche calling for women. However, it is an issue that needs more thought than just rolling out the mantra of equality.  Women need to consider whether they want to be XX equal or XY light. The debate needs to be about where we move humanity – forwards or backwards.

I will leave you with a litmus test. Consider how you would react when your daughter, sister or niece announces that she wishes to follow a career in a close combat unit. I know what I would say.

* Captain Doug Beattie served with the Royal Irish Regiment and was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry in Afghanistan.  He recorded his exploits in his book An Ordinary Soldier.

 ** Boy Cornwell was a 16 year old sailor who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross at the Battle of Jutland in 1916.

 *** Lieutenant-Colonel Douglas-Hamilton was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for leading his battalion at the Battle of Loos in 1915. He was 52 years old.

I am still struggling with the technology of the site. Comments can be left at the bottom of the page but the Follow button pops up on the About page. I look forward to hearing from you.

The Falkland Islands Scab

As a young lad, I rode my bicycle at high speed. A consequence of this was that I inadvertently parted company with it and badly cut my right elbow. As the scar healed my mother beseeched me not to pick at it, which I ignored to my detriment. This episode taught me that a picked scab takes a lot longer to heal.

These thoughts came back to me as I read of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s advertisement to assert Argentina’s claim over the Falkland Islands. This is just one of a long running series of stunts that have characterised Argentina’s approach to sovereignty claims since the 1960s.

Falklands Cathedral

Christ Church Cathedral, Port Stanly, with its iconic whalebone arch

The modern stunts, which include the Argentine Olympic hopeful Fernando Zylberberg filming himself for YouTube outside the Globe Tavern in Port Stanley, are tame compared to the more sinister hijacking, hostage taking, gun boat attacks and covert military landings that preceded them. However, they do continue to be a source of irritation, which does nothing to make the Falkland Islanders want a closer association with Argentina.

President Kirchner’s claim is that 180 years ago, Argentina was stripped of the Falkland Islands by the British. As many commentators have already pointed out, that this is not strictly correct. The ebb and flow of 18th and 19th century expansion meant that the islands were settled by various European power, whalers, sealers, German settlers from the United Provinces of the River Plate, American pirates and a penal settlement.

Falklands mountains

Desolate, razor backed mountains outside Port Stanly

None of these settlements were sustained, although most of them placed flags and plaques claiming the territory for one nation or another. It was reported that the German settlers “appeared greatly rejoiced at the opportunity thus presented of removing with their families from a desolate region where the climate is always cold and cheerless” when the USS Lexington destroyed Luis Vernet’s settlement in 1831on grounds of piracy.

The British reappeared in strength in 1833 to re-establish a military outpost, followed by a sustainable colony in 1840 and stayed.

What is clear from all this is that the Falkland Islands were inhospitable and sufficiently distant from any nation to warrant significant interest or investment. However, the British settlers endured and learnt how to survive on this very edge of the habitable world.

They developed their own culture and way of life, which I have witnessed during numerous visits to the islands over a 10 year period. They became Falkland Islanders, just as the other British settlers in the New World colonies became American or Canadian or Newfoundlanders.

International lawyers will no doubt make a good living arguing over the principles of self- determination and territorial integrity in years to come but the fact is that 180 years of unbroken settlement is a pretty definitive claim. I remember the US Bicentennial in 1976 and I don’t recall the UN debating the American legitimacy of occupation.

President Kirchner knows that her country missed its opportunity to acquire the Falkland Islands during the late 1960s and 1970s when the British government behaved like a seasoned matron as it did its utmost to push its wallflower daughter into an arranged marriage.

Argentina, unable to comprehend the long game, failed to seduce, despite it being the country of the tango, and instead sought to impose its will on the islanders. The macho Latin culture collided with the ‘kith and kin” Anglo-Saxon culture and the marriage of convenience was never consummated.

Falklands mine field

Daily reminders of the Argentine invasion of 1982

The Argentine “smash and grab” attempt in 1982 changed everything. There is no turning back to what might have been possible beforehand. The British public became aware of the Falkland Islands, through its champion The Sun newspaper.

The opportunity to pass the islands quietly to Argentina was lost. The islanders were granted full British citizenship and increased protection, which involved the building and maintenance of a significant military base on the Islands.

Since then the Falkland Islanders, despite Argentina’s best efforts to hinder them, have developed a thriving and sustainable economy. They are a self-governing British Overseas Territory and are comfortable with their relationship with Britain, as Barry Elsby, a member of the Falklands Islands Assembly, states.

“We are not a colony,” he says. “Our relationship with the United Kingdom is by choice.”

They have no reason to join with Argentina, so why would they want to?

The reality is that President Kirchner knows that she will not see the Falkland Islands peacefully integrated into Argentina during her life time. It is, however, a convenient rallying call for her own political ends and follows the well-worn tactics of previous Argentine rulers when things are difficult at home.

It is a short term strategy that sours neighbourly relations and increases the odds against any future partnership between the Islanders and their Latin neighbours.

My advice to President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is to stop picking the Falklands scab and in two, maybe three generations a meaning relationship might be developed with the islanders that could enable Argentina to benefit from the Falklands Islands oil bonanza.Falklands-seal