At the end of October 2016, the 26 sailors of Naham 3, held hostage in Somalia for more than four years were released. Behind this outcome was the work of several people, both locally and remotely, and several organizations.
One of the active participants is Oceans Beyond Piracy, a program of the U.S.-based NGO One Earth Future. Jérôme Michelet, a former French naval officer, and associate director of Oceans Beyond Piracy, discusses the actions and objectives of OBP.
Mer et Marine: Oceans Beyond Piracy is an NGO-type structure, located in Colorado. How an American association located so far from the sea comes to be interested in piracy and for what purpose?
Jérôme Michelet: OBP is a program of One Earth Future which was founded as a “think tank” eight years ago by a Canadian, Marcel Arsenault, who made his fortune in real estate, mostly in Colorado. He wished to establish a philanthropic organization with the stated mission of improving the problems of governance as a way to reduce conflict. This Think Tank quickly became a Do Tank, with the creation of Oceans Beyond Piracy in 2010. At that time, incidents of Somali piracy had spiked and was at the center of the concerns of the maritime world, be it ship owners, insurers, fishermen or military navies involved in traffic protection in the region.
At the time, we wanted to propose a voluntary, neutral approach to the issue of piracy: we started with the publication of annual reports by geographic area and then, in line with our objective of improving governance, proposed an intensification of dialogue between the different actors involved: governments, international institutions, ship owners, sailor welfare associations ...
Intensify dialogue: how is this reflected in the context and the very complex local reality of Somali piracy?
OBP’s purpose is not to protect ships directly. We work on durable solutions to improve the systems that allow piracy to develop. One Earth Future’s research tells us the causes of piracy are not being sufficiently addressed. The case of Somalia is known: no stable government for a long time, local communities confronting each other, pressure from radical Islamist groups. On the ground, one realizes that this very great political instability is, if not created, at least maintained by a collapse of the economy. Fishing had been a primary source of income for many Somalis. With political instability and the subsequent arrival of large foreign fishing vessels, Somali fishermen lost access to the fish and the industry that had sustained them for centuries.
OBP met with those in the fishing communities from which the pirates came. It is important to understand the extent to which the traditional structure of these villages has been undermined by the lack of access to fishing and the establishment of these piracy networks, the arrival of easy money and violence. We have succeeded in establishing dialogue with these communities, grasping the problem on the ground and then relaying this reality to international bodies.
We are convinced that in order to effectively combat the root causes of piracy, we must work for the economic development of the region. This is a long-term undertaking and several international programs have been launched by the United Nations or the European Union to address these challenges. Their efforts include boosting the economy of the Somali fishing industry and the resulting fisheries: improving harbors, establishing processing facilities and also training local coastguards. Secure Fisheries and Shuraako , two other One Earth Future programs are effective examples which have seen some success in encouraging investment in the region, especially in Somaliland.
It must be understood that piracy cannot be dealt with without addressing its root causes and providing a global response that goes beyond the mere military protection of the area's shipping traffic.
How did you move from this role of active expert to that of negotiator for the release of hostages, like what you did for the liberation of the Naham III sailors?
Oceans Beyond Piracy conducts ongoing research and publishes an annual report on the State of Piracy. In our study of Somali piracy we learned some hostage situations were quickly resolved by the states of which hostages were nationals and by the owners of the ships that had been attacked. However, we found that was not the case in all hostage situations. OBP felt it was our role to continue to work toward the release of all hostages, especially those who had been abandoned by their country of origin and/or the shipping company for which they worked. We called them the forgotten hostages.
For the Naham 3 sailors, the negotiation for their release was a long one. OBP leads the Hostage Support Partnership along with joined forces with Compass Risk, Holman Fenwick Willan and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Each member of the partnership contributed their specific skills to help win the release of the 26 Naham 3 hostages.
Over time, it became clear the Naham 3 hostages had been abandoned and their situation was becoming dire—the captain of the ship was killed in the initial attack and two hostages died from mistreatment while in captivity. The Hostage Support Partnership, including OBP’s regional manager for the Horn of Africa in Nairobi, a retired colonel from the British Army with an extensive Somali network, contacted the pirates to initiate the negotiations. His work and local connections were crucial in identifying the kidnappers and approaching them. The negotiations were complex, as it became clear that no one was going to pay for the hostage’s release. OBP and the Hostage Support Partnership appealed to the pirates on humanitarian and ethical grounds that ended up motivating the chiefs of the clan to listen and ultimately agree to the release.
At the end of these long years, we were finally able to obtain their release. In addition to its role in the negotiation, OBP organized the logistics for the actual release: we chartered privately a plane which came to retrieve the ex-hostages in Galkayo where they had been brought by trusted members of the community. All this took place while armed conflict continued in the background. We transported the ex-hostages to Nairobi where they were taken care of by their respective diplomatic representatives. All of the ex-hostages were severely malnourished and had endured harsh treatment at the hands of pirates for nearly five years, but all 26 survivors were able to return to their homes and families.
Can one think that Somali piracy is a phenomenon henceforth passed?
Not at all! Although attacks on large commercial vessels have decreased, there are still 10 Iranian sailors who are currently in the hands of pirates since their dhow was attacked 18 months ago. OBP continues to monitor and study piracy and we can see that there are still regular attacks: the pirates "test" and wait for the slightest drop of vigilance.
In this regard, the role of naval patrols in the area is essential. But this indispensable presence is not sufficient to effectively combat the phenomenon of piracy. A combination of military protection, best practices on ships in transit, the presence of armed guards and an effective legal component is required. It should not be forgotten that the first pirates to be convicted for their crimes are nearing the end of their prison terms and will be released soon. The money piracy generates has been redirected into the trafficking of weapons or human trafficking, and into the illicit sale of charcoal. Piracy know-how is not lost. It can come back at any time.
Interview by Caroline Britz