Somalia caught in the riptide

Columnist Neel Arora put together a piece this week about the ongoing glut of piracy off of the coast of Somalia, and argued that the pirates are brutal criminals free of honor, who must be dealt with quickly using coordinated military measures. While there is a heavy argument that such measures could be counterintuitive, and serve to embolden said pirates and give them the sort of PR that would serve to allow them to portray themselves as bold Robin Hoods, the Obama administration has made its stance clear via a few snipers and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s more recent comments regarding the detainment of pirates.

Though the motivations of these pirates at first seem to be self-explanatory, ransoms and hostages are typically the tactics of criminals who wish to rush in, grab as much cash as possible and make a speedy escape. Certainly the excessive poverty and lawlessness that permeates Somalia can only serve to exacerbate matters further.

But Januna Ali Jama, a spokesman for a contingent of pirates in the Putland region (one must wonder whether he needed a degree or at least a look at a PR textbook to obtain such a position), said that the hijackings are their way of “reacting to the toxic waste that has been continually dumped on the shores of our country for nearly 20 years.” Of course, this news comes from Al Jazeera, it appears that western media has strayed from covering such statements.

While successful piracy can lead to great personal wealth, could it be that at least some of these men are are fighting not purely out of vanity and personal gain, but for revenge against a system of trade that they think has irreversibly altered their homeland and its people?

The first reports of the dumping of toxic waste came in the late 80’s, but they hit a peak in 1997 and 1998 when Famiglia Cristiana, an Italian newspaper, produced evidence of major Italian firms participating in signing agreements with what amounted to Somalia’s “government’ at the time so that they could dump their waste off the coast for about $8 per ton, a drastic reduction from the $1,000 per ton rate that was common across Europe at the time for waste disposal.

Then in the wake of 2004’s tsunami disaster, the toxic waste that accumulated for years at the bottom of the ocean washed ashore, providing garish evidence of the sheer disregard displayed by countless international firms.

“Initial reports indicate that the tsunami waves broke open containers full of toxic waste and scattered the contents. We are talking about everything from medical waste to chemical waste products,” Nick Nuttal, a representative from the United Nations Environment Program told The Times in 2005.

The U.N. also reported that citizens living in areas close to the northeastern coastline of Somalia suffered from a greater-normal number of respiratory infections, ulcers, hemorrhages and additional maladies.

Al Jazeera checked with Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, Somalia’s envoy to the U.N., and he reported that the U.N. does have information that proves that European and Asian firms are dumping not only commercial and industrial waste off of Somalia’s coast, but nuclear waste as well.

“The intentions of these pirates are not concerned with protecting their environment,” Ould-Abdallah later said, contradicting the claims made by Ali Jama.

It comes down to a matter of belief, and just how much faith one can put in statements made by the talking head of a organization based upon piracy. Regardless of whether or not Somali pirates are actually jumping into their boats, replete with weaponry, with environmental vengeance in mind (my best guess is that Ould-Abdallah is completely correct on this, and Ali Jama’s claims are either the representation of a small minority of the pirating population’s stance, or a call for populist support.) the issue of the toxic waste still remains.

It’s easy to put the blame entirely upon the pirates for their desperate leap to hijacking international freighters, but it’s essential to remember that such decisions don’t exist in a vacuum. Somalia is a lawless state without any way to provide anything for its people, with feuding “leaders” unable to pass up making a measly sum off of compromising the health of its people and the integrity of its waters. When backed into a corner, people will do anything to better their lives, as so long as Somalia is an unstable mess, pirates will cruise out into the ocean from its coast, regardless of heads full of noble causes or hearts laden with greed.

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Filed under Crime, International, Media, Morgan, Pendulum

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