Pirates have long been subjects of fascination and intrigue in the Western literary imagination. Authors have published accounts of looting, mustachsomali-piratesed, one-legged bandits toiling over treacherous waters in such epic masterpieces as “Peter Pan.” But in Somalia, where many forge a living by capturing commercial cargo ships in the Indian Ocean, the motives for pursuing a life of piracy aren’t so romantic.

Reports of Somali pirates hijacking foreign ships have circulated through the news quite frequently in the past few months. Last September, for example, the New York Times’ Jeffrey Gettleman reported a band of Somali pirates snatched a Ukrainian arms vessel headed for Kenya.  Much of the article delved into the details of the attack, the great conundrums that Somali piracy presents for the international community and African law-making bodies, as well as the deviance of the criminals responsible for the attack. Gettleman describes the pirates in the following manner:

“The gun-toting, seafaring thieves, who routinely pounce on cargo ships bobbing along on the Indian Ocean, suddenly found themselves in command of a vessel crammed with $30 million worth of grenade launchers, piles of ammunition, even battle tanks.”

While his word choice certainly grabs the reader’s attention, the analysis provided notably fails to examine driving forces behind the growing trend of Somali piracy. Might there be reasons beyond an assumed natural affinity to  lawlessness and violence?  What of the public perception of piracy as a form of national defense among Somalis?

Much to the ire of the United States and Russia, the pirates refused to turn over the Ukrainian ship, claiming the charged ransom money was to be used to fund public service projects to clean up toxic waste along the Somali coast. That is, uranium radioactive waste European and Asian companies have dumped in Somali waters for over a decade. Yes, the same Europe that is crying foul each time Somali pirates attack. Not to mention that foreign powers have been illegally draining Somali fisheries and other marine resources since 2000.

Mainstream news outlets also fail to mention the devastating poverty and weak rule of law that has drawn many Somalis to piracy as a means of livelihood. Without a reliable government or a functioning economy, most Somalis end up desperate for a means of income.

In other words, it seems convenient for the international community to dismiss Somali pirates as third-rate thugs. But, it would prove more constructive for major world powers to address the bloody conflict with U.S.-backed Ethiopian forces that has been ripping through Somalia for the past nineteen years. A thoughtful letter to the editor for the UK’s Financial Times pointed out that over the past two years, battles between the Somalis and U.S.-backed Ethiopian troops have resulted in the displacement of one million and the death of 10,000 Somali citizens. Locked in violence and pandemonium, Somalis have increasingly turned to less conventional industries, such as piracy, as a means of survival and way to exercise power over the terms of their own lives.

What can the world’s major powers do? For one, the United States should stop its funding and support of Ethiopia’s invasion and violation of Somalia’s territorial integrity. In addition, wildly hazardous, health-threatening toxic waste dumping on the part of European and Asian  companies should cease. Finally, as per usual, diplomatic intervention and humanitiarian aid will go much farther than bellicose rhetoric and short-sighted interventionist policies  in stemming the Somali piracy problem.

Oh, and the illegal usurpation and abuse of a sovereign country’s resources and territory have never been the best way to stamp out crime.

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