The commander of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet expressed doubts Friday about the wisdom of launching attacks against Somali pirates on land — a proposal the U.S. is circulating to the U.N. Security Council.
U.S. Vice Adm. Bill Gortney told reporters that striking pirate camps presents problems because it is difficult to identify them and the potential for killing innocent civilians "cannot be overestimated."
"They're irregulars — they don't wear uniforms," said Gortney, who oversees a coalition of navies fighting piracy off Somalia.
In a wide-ranging interview at his 5th Fleet headquarters, Gortney said such strikes are an effort to go for an easy military solution to a problem. He says the better solutions are to improve the security, stability and government in Somalia, and to clear up legal hurdles so that militaries that capture pirates can detain them and bring them to trial.
Currently, most foreign navies patrolling the Somali coast have been reluctant to detain suspects because of uncertainties over where they would face trial, since Somalia has no effective central government or legal system.
Signs of progress
The draft U.N. Security Council resolution proposes that all nations and regional groups cooperating with Somalia's U.N.-backed government in the fight against piracy and armed robbery "may take all necessary measures ashore in Somalia."
Bush administration officials in Washington say that while the proposal would give the U.S. military more options in confronting the pirates, it does not mean the U.S. is planning a ground assault.
Gortney said progress is being made in the international effort to stem the recent spike in pirate attacks on commercial vessels off the Somali coast. He said this includes efforts to change the legal requirements so navies can detain and send captured pirates to trial. And, he said, more shipping companies are adding security guards.
Since the end of August, Gortney said, coalition ships have disrupted potential pirate attacks 50 times, throwing guns overboard and sinking small skiffs. But in many instances they had to release the people on the ships because of the legal hurdles.
Gortney also rejected the idea of a naval blockade along the Somali coast, saying it would be an act of war. And the size of the coastline would require so many ships that "it would be very, very difficult."
Objections from other nations
At the United Nations, the U.S. proposal is running afoul of some Security Council members such as South Africa and Indonesia that have often voiced sovereignty concerns about a major initiative, particularly by the council's major Western powers.
Indonesian Ambassador to the U.N. told reporters Friday in New York that the U.S. plan could conflict with the U.N.'s "Law of the Sea" treaty, which sets rules and settles disputes over navigation, fishing and economic development of the open seas and establishes environmental standards.
"I still have a problem with this onshore business," said the ambassador, Marty Natalegawa. "We have a regime that governs the law of the seas ... and we cannot simply willy-nilly and as we please set that aside as a situation dictates."
Concerns over treaty provisions
The Law of the Sea Convention was concluded in 1982 and went into effect in 1994. As of last month it had been ratified by 157 nations — including Somalia, Indonesia and South Africa — but not the United States.
The treaty recognizes sovereign rights over a country's continental shelf out to 200 nautical miles and beyond if a country can substantiate its claims. Former President Ronald Reagan opposed U.S. participation because of a provision on deep seabed mining, while Senate Republicans contended the treaty would subject the U.S. military and economy to a hostile international bureaucracy.
Last year, though, it won backing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and President George W. Bush pushed unsuccessfully for Senate ratification. They worried that the melting of the global ice cap would trigger a rush of claims by Arctic countries, including Russia.
Natalegawa emphasized that any solution to Somalia's piracy boom must also include a peace process.
"The parties need to be sitting down somewhere, somehow and just to talk. And then we have a peace to be kept, for peacekeeping operations," he said. "But now we are having countries, as they wish, (deciding) to just pick and choose an a la carte question — which piece that they want to be discussing. That is why we are in like a Catch-22, like a vicious circle."