8th December 2010 marked the 2nd anniversary of the start of Operation ATALANTA, the European Union’s Naval Force (EUNAVFOR) counter-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden and Somali Basin. The anniversary coincided with the confirmation by the EU that the operation would be extended until December 2012.
Over the past two years, the EUNAVFOR’s primary mission has been to protect United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) vessels against pirate attack by providing close escort to the ships carrying much needed humanitarian aid to Somalia. Since the start of the operation, 98 WFP vessels have been escorted of which 90 have been protected by EUNAVFOR units alone. The African Union Mission in Somalia’s (AMISOM) logistic vessels also come under the protective arm of the EUNAVFOR with 77 successful escorts being achieved to date.
The Operational Commander, Major General Buster Howes OBE said, “Having been tasked to protect WFP vessels, I am proud to say that, since we arrived, not a single WFP ship has been successfully pirated and that we are now providing escorts to an organisation that is providing humanitarian aid to 1.8 Million people per day and that has so far delivered nearly 470,000 tons of much needed food to the Somali people.”
The Naval Force is also tasked to protect other vulnerable shipping and to help deter, prevent and repress pirate attacks. This last task is considerable and is the one which, with an area of over three Million square kilometres equating to the size of Western Europe to patrol, is proving to be the most challenging. Despite the best efforts of the EUNAVFOR, there are still currently 22 pirated vessels and 532 hostages in the hands of pirates off the coast of Somalia. Major General Howes is realistic about this part of his mission.
“There is no getting away from the fact that strategically, a naval presence is not deterring the pirates. The business model that they have adopted is too productive and the rewards simply too huge for them to be deterred from their activities. The solution has always and will always lie ashore. We will continue to ‘hold the line’ at sea whilst the international community, led by the EU, adopts a more comprehensive approach ashore” he added.
In the Gulf of Aden, the establishment and regular policing of the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC) by EUNAVFOR ships and aircraft has had a significant effect on the number of successful attacks with a 54% reduction in the number of piratings between 2009 and 2010.
In the Somali Basin, the EUNAVFOR has also had considerable success in disrupting pirate attacks with some 75 Pirate Action Groups apprehended since the start of the operation. As a result of its close cooperation with regional governments such as Kenya and The Republic of the Seychelles, 92 suspected pirates captured by the EUNAVFOR have entered a legal system, with 43 being convicted to date.
The continuing close relationship with industry and the application of the much-publicised Best Management Practices (BMP) are particularly worthy of note with instances of merchant vessels defeating pirate attacks by using BMPs become increasingly common. Latest figures suggest that since 19 November 2010, 15 merchant ships have successfully defended themselves against attacks using the advice provided by the merchant industry and EUNAVFOR. The message from the EUNAVFOR is clear; the merchant community should consider themselves to be on the front line of defence and must implement BMP.
As Operation ATALANTA goes on into 2012, the comprehensive approach adopted and pursued by the EU also continues to gain pace with the EU Sponsored Training Mission in Uganda leading the way. The requirement for EUNAVFOR is expected to remain for some time but in the meantime the Operation’s Commander remains cautiously optimistic that he can continue to have an effect.
“The EUNAVFOR, through Operation ATALANTA, is justifiably proud of its accomplishments over the past 2 years and we welcome the decision to extend the timescale to December 2012. But there will always be more that the International Community and the Regional Countries can do if the threat from piracy is to be effectively contained. In the meantime, we will continue to ‘hold the line’ for as long as we are required to do so.”