Tue, Oct 07, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Pirates and the risk to Somalia aid

By Josette Sheeran

Time is running out for Somalia. As many as 3 million people — one-third of the country — live under threat of starvation. Their lifeline is the sea, from which food, medical supplies and other aid arrives. And there lies the problem.

Heavily armed bands of modern-day pirates in speedboats are terrorizing ships in Somalia’s coastal waters.

So far this year they have raided more than 50 vessels, stealing cargos and hijacking ships, from private yachts to oil tankers, and extorting some US$100 million a year in ransom.

Just last week, a Ukrainian freighter carrying heavy weaponry, including tanks, was hijacked. A Greek petrochemical carrier was seized and another attacked, as was an Iranian oil tanker. These pirates currently hold more than a dozen ships hostage in Somali ports.

Ships laden with tens of thousands of tons of maize, sorghum, split peas and cooking oil from the UN World Food Program (WFP) and other international aid organizations must navigate these dangerous waters.

Keeping Somalia’s sea-borne supply line open is imperative. It carries 90 percent of the humanitarian assistance delivered by the WFP, which in turn supplies nearly 90 percent of the aid that feeds so many Somalis.

These pirate terrorists are not particularly powerful. Estimates put their number at around 1,200. But they are growing increasingly brazen, all the more so when not confronted.

Since November last year, following a series of pirate raids, Canada, the Netherlands, Denmark and France deployed naval frigates to escort WFP aid ships safely into harbor. Under their protection, not a single ship has come under attack, ensuring the uninterrupted flow of assistance.

Yet despite that clear success, the future is uncertain. The Canadian naval mission ends this month and no country has stepped forward to replace it.

Without naval escorts, food aid will not get to Somalia. The WFP has stockpiled sufficient supplies to keep relief flowing for some days. But once those warehouses are empty, the country and its people will be on their own.

I am optimistic that some nation will come to the rescue — but we must not risk this happening too late, or not at all. Beyond that, we need a long-term plan.

We at the UN are duty-bound to do what compassion and human decency demand of us. Is the world really going to stand by and watch more children die of starvation?

Somalia’s political future is uncertain at best. Yet we need to set to work on a plan for deploying a viable multinational force to help secure peace there, or at the very least sustain its people.

There is a clear way to begin. The first step is for some country or countries to volunteer the naval force needed to preserve Somalia’s humanitarian lifeline.

The next is to develop a comprehensive strategy, in conjunction with the UN Security Council, to eliminate piracy in Somali waters.

The time to act is now. Lives depend on it.

Josette Sheeran is executive director of the UN World Food Program.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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