UN report calls for piracy courts in Somalia

In a report circulated among Security Council members, the UN's special advisor on Somali piracy warned that prosecuting pirates has "reached a standstill" with less than 10 per cent of those captured being brought to justice.

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NEW YORK // Security Council members should spend $25 million on special courts and prisons in Somalia's self-governing regions to prosecute and jail sea-borne raiders, according to a UN report.

Jack Lang, the UN's special advisor on legal issues related to Somali piracy, suggested in the report that the autonomous areas of Somaliland and Puntland should each house a UN-backed courthouse and prison for pirates within eight months. A third, Somali-run court, is planned in Arusha, Tanzania.

In the report circulated among Security Council members late on Monday, Mr Lang warned that prosecuting Somali pirates has "reached a standstill" with less than 10 per cent of those captured being brought to justice.

"If the international community does not act with extreme urgency, Somalia's piracy economy will continue to grow, past the point of no return," said the 55-page report. "A very limited window of opportunity remains for the international community to act with determination and attempt to win the race against time."

Piracy reached record levels last year with 53 hijackings and 1,181 kidnappings. Eight sailors were killed by the increasingly heavily armed attackers, the International Maritime Bureau said this month.

Hijackings off the coast of Somalia accounted for 92 per cent of all ship seizures last year, with 49 vessels captured and 1,016 crew members taken hostage, the bureau said. Pirate attacks on ships globally has risen every year for the past four years, with 445 incidents reported in 2010, up 10 per cent from 2009.

An international armada guards shipping lanes off Somalia's coast and into the Gulf of Aden, assisting the 25,000 vessels that pass through the Red Sea and Suez Canal each year as well as tankers carrying 3.3 million barrels of oil each day through the Bab-el Mandeb Strait.

But high unemployment among Somali men and teens creates a steady stream of willing pirates, with Somalia's UN-backed central government struggling to control its own territory and locked in a battle against Islamist militants.

Only about one quarter of pirate raids are successful, the report said, but this has still seen 105 vessels and 1,900 seamen held for ransom since the end of 2008.

Ransoms grew to an average of US$5.4 million (Dh19.8) per vessel last year, with the record-breaking $9.5 million payoff for the South Korean oil tanker, Samho Dream, in November adding to last year's booty of about $238 million, according to the research group One Earth Future.

Although marines have captured more than 2,000 suspected pirates since December 2008, only 738 have been transferred to judicial authorities in 13 countries - mostly to Somalia, Kenya, Yemen, the Seychelles and the Maldives.

Many navies seize and destroy vessels and weapons but only "catch-and-release" the raiders, the report said. The Operation Atlanta force from European countries caught 51 suspects from mid-August to mid-December last year but freed all of them immediately.

Most countries do not try suspect pirates in domestic courts, with the exceptions of the Seychelles and Kenya, which use "universal jurisdiction" to try detainees. More nations should follow suit, said Mr Lang, while also co-operating more on gathering evidence and transferring convicts.

Tackling piracy should take place chiefly in Somalia, he said, with two courts and two prisons opened in Somaliland and Puntland within eight months. Each prison will hold 500 captives and have international monitors, and a third should open in Puntland within two years.

Mr Lang, who became a UN advisor in August, calls for a donor conference and the shipping industry to foot the $25 million bill - which he says is far cheaper than the multi-million dollar costs arising from piracy.

The law professor and former French culture minister has said he wants the Security Council to adopt a resolution based on his recommendations within a month, while also focussing on growing Somalia's economy so that fewer Somalis turn to crime.

The UN's humanitarian co-ordinator in Somalia, Mark Bowden, lamented "one of the world's most intractable crises" this week and urged donors to step up support for the country of 9.4 million, many of whom endure poverty, drought and conflict.

Bronwyn Bruton, an author of reports on Somalia for the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, said rich nations only pay "lip service" to development in Somalia and criticised Mr Lang's proposals as an "expedient" solution to deep-rooted problems.

"The idea that they're going to be scared off by prisons that meet UN human rights standards is wholly unrealistic. In these jails, they will have food, protection from violence and probably some basic literacy training. For these guys, it's going to sound like a holiday camp."