The Somali Piracy Problem: A Global Puzzle Necessitating a Global Solution

35 Pages Posted: 24 Mar 2010  

Milena Sterio

Cleveland State University - Cleveland-Marshall College of Law

Date Written: March 22, 2010


Over the past few years, piracy has exploded off the coast of Somalia. The Somali pirates congregate on a mother ship and then divide into smaller groups that sail out on tiny skiffs. Using potent weapons like AK-47’s and hand-propelled grenades, the Somali pirates then attack civilian ships carrying cargo through the Gulf of Aden, toward South Africa or Asia. Once they have overtaken the victim vessel, pirates typically hijack the vessel’s cargo and crewmembers. The former is often resold to willing buyers (some of which include terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda). The latter are taken to the Somali shore and kept hostage, until multi-million dollar ransoms are paid by either the hostages’ home country or the ship owners themselves. In most instances, crew members have been released unharmed, but those held hostage by the Somali pirates describe a horrific ordeal, and specify that they were held at gun point during most of their captivity. The pirates themselves routinely go unpunished: once they release the hostages, they simply return to their ships to plan yet another lucrative capture.

The reasons for such a high success rate for the Somali pirates are relatively simple. First, the Somali pirates operate for the most part in the Gulf of Aden, a narrow strait of water where thousands of ships sail every year; thus, the number of potential victim vessels is higher in these waters than elsewhere. Second, because these pirates operate in such a narrow body of water, they are able to haul captured cargo and victims quickly and easily onto the Somali mainland. Thus, pirates do not have to risk capture by sailing for long stretches of time on open seas with the hijacked cargo and crewmembers on their own ships, which would be the case if they operated elsewhere. Third, Somalia is a failed state with no central government and no effective police force; thus, pirates are able to operate with impunity from Somali coastal towns. In fact, news accounts confirm that entire towns on the coast of Somalia happily live off the proceeds of piracy. Fourth, piracy is a lucrative business: reports indicate that a single seizure of a ship can earn each individual pirate up to $150,000! In a country like Somalia, where average yearly earnings amount to about $600, this amount seems more than staggering. Finally, piracy in Somalia has been thriving because of a lack of global cooperation in suppressing pirate attacks. Pirates work at a supra-national level: they attack a vessel owned by a company headquartered in country A, which flies the flag of country B and employs crewmembers coming from countries C, D, E, and F. Thus, no particular country’s interests are harmed through the pirate attack. Moreover, crewmembers typically come from the developing world, and the major maritime powers like the United States and the United Kingdom have shown relatively little interest in working toward the release of pirate-held non-native hostages. The lack of global cooperation in terms of law enforcement as well as prosecution of the detained pirates has significantly contributed to the high success rate of the Somali pirates. Shipping companies themselves, despite being the most affected by pirate attacks, have done nothing to solve the problem. Instead, through paying increasingly high ransoms to the pirates in exchange for the release of kidnapped crewmembers, shipping companies have exacerbated the problem.

This Article argues that the true solution to the Somali piracy problem consists of a globally coordinated effort among major maritime powers, regional countries, and shipping companies themselves to share information, to jointly collect data, to cooperate in maritime patrols and surveillance operations off the Somali coast, to establish jurisdictional networks to ensure that pirates are always prosecuted, and to provide for stiff penalties for apprehended pirates. If Somali piracy continues to thrive, it could dangerously undermine East African regional stability, contribute to the rise of terrorism, further endanger the financial stability of the shipping business, and impose burdensome human and monetary costs on all the parties involved, including major maritime countries like the United States or the United Kingdom. Because of the potential global danger that the Somali piracy poses, any responses thereto must be of a global scale. In order to further address this important issue, this Article describes in Part II why fighting piracy is crucial in today’s volatile world. Part III outlines the existing laws available in the fight against piracy, including domestic criminal statute as well as major international treaties. Part IV describes some of the already existing practical responses to the piracy problem, focusing on the successful solutions that littoral states in Southeast Asia adopted when faced with the rise in piracy incidents in the Malacca Straits. Finally, Part V presents both legal as well as practical solutions, based on the Southeast Asian model, which could be adopted for the resolution of the Somali piracy crisis. This Article concludes that the Somali piracy will continue to thrive unless a true global network of law enforcement and jurisdictional efforts by all the relevant players is established and applied to this region.

Keywords: maritime piracy, law of the seas, economics, international law, international humanitarian law

Suggested Citation

Sterio, Milena, The Somali Piracy Problem: A Global Puzzle Necessitating a Global Solution (March 22, 2010). Cleveland-Marshall Legal Studies Paper No. 10-189. Available at SSRN: or

Milena Sterio (Contact Author)

Cleveland State University - Cleveland-Marshall College of Law ( email )

2121 Euclid Avenue, LB 138
Cleveland, OH 44115-2214
United States
216-687-3852 (Phone)
216-687-6881 (Fax)

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