DAVID BRIN's world of ideas

David Brin's "off-axis" political suggestions

Suggestion Two: Reduce Somali Piracy

By David Brin, Ph.D.

[image from Wired.com]

A recent surge of high-profile piracy has drawn attention to the Gulf of Aden -- one of the world's most important seaways -- now under siege and frequent assault by brazen pirates based in Somalia.

That lawless land has been a calamity in many other ways, for example by offering a haven for terrorist organizations to train and operate. Unpoliced Somali territorial waters have become a handy dumping ground for unscrupulous companies to get rid of toxic waste. Criminal gangs launder cash and stolen goods. Meanwhile, millions of innocents suffer and die under horrific warlords, in a land where schools, hospitals and basic services have almost vanished from memory.

The world community has tried a variety of timid "solutions" that range from increasing naval patrols to encouraging an incursion by neighboring Ethiopia -- all to no avail. The entire region, from the Kenyan border, past the national capital, Mogadishu, all the way to the Horn of Africa, remains a hellish maelstrom of fanatics, marauders and tribal vendettas. Sure, we got our fingers burned in the early 1990s trying to bring order to Somalia with peacekeeping troops. So? Must we therefore stand aside, wringing our hands while an important region festers in catastrophic lawlessness?

One potential alternative has been avoided, till now, for reasons never made publicly clear. Go online and look up Somaliland, as opposed to Somalia. It turns out that this northern third of the country -- the portion formerly colonized by Britain -- is already at peace and relatively well-ordered.

It also sits directly adjacent to the Gulf of Aden. And yet, this region has striven to be a solution, not a part of the problem. "Our coast is extremely long, but we have kept our waters free of pirates," said Abdillahi Duale, foreign minister of Somaliland, in a statement last week, offering the use of his territory's ports for foreign naval patrols. This overture, like many others, appears likely to be ignored. Why?

Ever since attempting to declare its independence in 1991, Somaliland has failed to gain recognition from a single nation, because of an archaic diplomatic consensus that original national boundaries should be held sacrosanct -- an axiom that has had hellish effects in Africa and that was shrugged aside, in places as wide-ranging as Tibet, Bangladesh, Kashmir, Eritrea, East Timor, Kosovo and Georgia. Still, because of this standing principle, for almost two decades, four million people in northern Somalia have been told that they could not legally detach themselves from the madness in the south.

But all right. If that's the iron rule of diplomacy, then why not turn the matter around? Here's an alternative idea.

Recognize Somaliland as the one calm region of Somalia. Establish and upgrade western consulates in its capital, Hargeisa. Assist improvements in democracy and human rights. Beef up aid to this promising zone and make clear to southern factions which way the wind is blowing. Reward any southern tribe that chooses to turn away from madness and join a growing confederation that already has a record of providing at least basic law and safety, under a purely Somalian umbrella.

Moreover, with modest international aid, a Somalian constabulary based right there at the Gulf of Aden might carry out far more effective efforts against piracy -- both at sea and on land, taking the fight to the pirate enclaves. (This, historically, was always the best solution to piracy.) At minimum, Somaliland would offer an ideal place to bring pirates who are captured at sea, since this one lawful region might legitimately claim to represent justice along the entire Somali coast.

One Somali territory that immediately borders Somaliland, Puntland, is a major pirate haven. It ought to be possible to sway Puntland, with a combination of carrots and sticks, to join in confederation with Somaliland, or else face quarantine, while watching Somaliland grow overwhelmingly strong, next door. In any event, the cost of such an experiment would be low, and no western or foreign troops need put a foot on the ground.

Sure, it's no panacea. But why not offer this purely Somali option -- to join a growing portion of the nation that is sane, moderate and increasingly democratic -- to any Somalian who wants to live like a civilized person?

Or, at least, could we finally hear an explanation why not?

[image from MarineBuzz.com]