DUBAI // To stop Somali piracy would take two steps, said the UAE representative to the UN, Ahmed al Jarman, at the most recent meeting of a UN anti-piracy group.
Naval patrols did not suffice, he said. To clamp down, nations must work together in "bringing pirates to justice" and rebuilding the Somali government "to ensure law enforcement and justice and bring peace and stability to the country".
Many governments endorse those views. But only a handful have prosecuted pirates, and only two African nations have deployed troops to Somalia to defend its transitional government.
Pirates, meanwhile, in an effort to avoid warships in the Gulf of Aden, have spread into the vast Indian Ocean. Shippers are paying more to protect the goods they send by sea, and seafarers are taking greater risks to deliver them. More than 700 crewmen sit in captivity off the Somali coast - 35 were kidnapped while travelling from the UAE just last week.
"Nobody bothers," said a Dubai-based shipping executive who declined to be named, echoing the frustration of many in the industry. "The fact that people are eating food that was probably grown 10,000 miles away and transported by sea, it's taken for granted."
"It is the ship's crew who are keeping global trade alive," he said. But they "are low profile, usually from developing countries. In the minds of a lot of people they are expendable".
The most proactive nations have contributed warships, aircraft, personnel and money to patrol piracy danger zones. Most serve in any of three multinational forces: the EU Naval Force Somalia (EU Navfor), a Nato force, and a US-led counterpiracy effort carried out by some members of the 25-nation Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) called Combined Task Force (CTF) 151.
China, India, Russia and other nations have sent warships that operate independently. After a South Korean tanker, the MT Samho Jewelry, was hijacked en route from the UAE on Sunday, Seoul dispatched a naval destroyer to intercept it.
But by the admission of navies, they cannot fix the problem.
At any given time, two dozen ships are roaming a vast risk zone, said a CMF spokesman, Lt Jeremy Olver. "The area to cover is simply huge, and navies cannot be everywhere at once."
Nor can the nearest warship always answer a distress signal in time. Some do, and warn the pirates off. But others, if they arrive after pirates have boarded a ship, tend to back off to avoid the crew being harmed.
"If we were to attempt to take back the ship, then the safety of the hostages would be put in jeopardy," explained an EU Navfor spokesman, Wing Commander Paddy O'Kennedy.
Several UAE-owned and other hijacked vessels have passed right under naval noses. Last May, an American warship spotted the MV Iceberg I - which had been seized two months earlier and still sits in captivity - and trailed it for 36 hours before returning to other duties. In June, a military aircraft hovered nearby as pirates commandeered the MV QSM Dubai.
Non-naval efforts have progressed slowly - particularly in helping Somalia, where the last strong central government collapsed in 1991 and UN peacekeeping troops left in failure four years later. Today, in Mogadishu, 8,000 African Union troops from Uganda and Burundi fight street by street for control against powerful militias.
Few countries - the US, some European nations, Kenya and the Seychelles - have opened their courts and prisons to pirates. They have convicted several dozen.
The UAE sits on two UN bodies that focus on piracy: the 49-member "contact group" formed in 2009 that UAE representative Mr Jarman addressed, and the long-standing 169-member International Maritime Organisation, which also looks at shipping safety and pollution.
It contributes to a CMF task force that patrols the Arabian Gulf, called CTF 152, but not to the counterpiracy CTF 151.
Since 2009, the UAE and its neighbours have been considering the formation of a Pan-Arab anti-piracy task force but are yet to do so.
The UAE has contributed generously to boosting security in the Seychelles, part of its ongoing largesse to the island nation, where Sheikh Khalifa, President of the UAE, is building a palace. This month, it provided five patrol boats along with coastguard training, and last July it pledged US$15 million (Dh55m) for a new coastguard base. The Coastguard declined to comment.
"It could be said they could do more," said a shipping manager who requested anonymity. "They might not have the naval resources, but they have a lot of financial resources."
Like others in the shipping industry he lamented what he considered a lack of progress.
"The only solution is to sort Somalia out ... and there's no real movement towards that," he said. "It's hard to see a light at the end of the tunnel."
Cost and duration of legal action have led to few convictions
The few countries that have prosecuted suspected pirates have proceeded with caution.
The first cases in the US and Europe lasted up to a year or more and raised questions about the cost and worth of housing and feeding the suspects as well as gathering evidence and witnesses from abroad.
Europe’s first trial against five Somalis, who attacked a Turkish vessel in January 2009, took place in a Dutch court and ended in June 2010 in a five-year conviction.
In the first case in the US, five Somalis who fired at a US warship in March 2010 were found guilty in November and will be sentenced in March, though they face mandatory life in prison.
Kenya, which has taken the majority of the 100-plus Somalis detained so far and convicted a few dozen, last year began to balk.
In April, the government threatened to stop accepting suspects, saying the country’s prisons and courts were overburdened.
Trials resumed after western nations pledged additional funds, then stopped again in September, after the government said its agreements had expired.
In November, a judge in Kenya ruled that the country’s courts did not have the jurisdiction to prosecute suspected pirates detained outside Kenyan waters.
The Seychelles, which began prosecuting suspected pirates last year, convicted its first 11 in July. It sentenced them to 10 years in prison.