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BRUSSELS, Apr 13 2012 (IPS) - As Western forces step up their military presence in Somalia, locals and experts are worried that the country – struggling under multiple crises from piracy, to drought – is doomed to churn in a cycle of violence that fails to acknowledge root causes of the problems.
Making bold moves to curb piracy efforts on the Somali coast, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the European Union have decided to extend counter-piracy missions until the end of 2014.
The EU operation, called Atalanta, has also been extended to include land targets in order to work closely with the Transitional Federal Government and other Somali entities, according to a statement from the Council of the EU – a move that has been widely condemned by experts who believe these attacks will threaten civilian life and undermine anti-piracy efforts.
“Fighting piracy and its root causes is a priority of our action in the Horn of Africa. Despite pressure on defense budgets, EU member states demonstrate their renewed commitment to this successful operation,” EU High Representative Catherine Ashton said in a statement issued Mar. 23.
The announcement came days after Rear Admiral Duncan L. Potts, operation commander for Atalanta, addressed the Subcommittee on Security and Defense and announced it was time for the EU to “tighten pressure on pirates and reach out to Somalis.”
Already, operation Atalanta and NATO’s operation Ocean Shield, along with U.S. maritime forces and other national actors, can tentatively boast a decreased number of pirate attacks.
NATO reports decreased pirate activity as well. In Jan. 2011, there were 29 attacks and six ships overtaken, while numbers for Jan. 2012 showed only four attacks, none of which were successful.
Still, there has been widespread criticism over increased security in the country, with many experts arguing that international naval forces simply fuel a cycle of violence and fail to address the root causes of Somalia’s instability.
Others believe the use of violence to defeat piracy is misguided, since illegal fishing and dumping in Somali waters have been exposed as the root causes of piracy as a whole.
Desperate for food
Somalia remains one of the most difficult countries for humanitarian groups to operate in, owing to decades of violence and, in more recent years, a crippling drought that has left thousands dead and millions starving.
According to the World Food Programme, 2.4 million people are in need of assistance in Somalia, roughly 32 percent of the population. Currently, the WFP reaches up to 1.3 million people along the coast of Somalia, as well as in Puntland, Somaliland, and Mogadishu.
The goals of Operation Atalanta, according to the EU Naval Force (EU NAVFOR), include deterring and preventing acts of piracy, protecting shipping off the Somali coast, as well as protecting WFP vessels carrying food to displaced persons.
Thus far, EU NAVFOR reports the successful delivery of nearly 900,000 metric tonnes of food to relief efforts in Somalia, with 145 WFP ships escorted to shore.
The scale of violence has impacted other aid organisations as well, with aid workers often caught in the midst of deadly attacks in their line of work.
Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières or MSF) recently condemned the shelling of the emergency room and surgical ward of Mogadishu’s Daynile Hospital in late March. MSF has worked in the hospital since 2006 as part of the organisation’s 13 operations within the country.
The organisation’s efforts in the Hodan district of the capital were cut in half this January, after two aid workers, Philippe Havet and Karel Keiluhu, were killed.
MSF continues to call for the release of two aid workers, Blanca Thiebaut and Montserrat Serra, who were abducted from the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya in October last year, while providing assistance to Somali refugees.
Disrupting the ‘business model’ of piracy
Most experts are widely agreed on the fact that Somalia’s future depends on treating the “symptoms” of the failed state by eventually curtailing piracy, promoting a stable national government and establishing a robust judicial system.
Potts acknowledged that those who commit acts of piracy are part of the disenfranchised population, driven to the “cash-rich but asset-poor” business of piracy. He described the pirates as “criminals of opportunity” who don’t discriminate based on whatever national flag a ship raises.
Indeed, the fact that the most sophisticated aerial surveillance systems have been unable to take out the modestly equipped pirates is testament to the latter’s economic desperation.
Still, locals are losing tolerance for continued acts of piracy, according to Potts. Efforts to dissuade citizens from falling into piracy include involving clan elders in Somalia, who are poised to get the message across, particularly to the youth.
Alexander Rondos, the EU Special Representative for the Horn of Africa, described a “lost generation” of youth that pays an awful price for piracy.
Potts lamented the EU’s limited ability to properly handle underage suspects of piracy, given the lack of effective legal and rehabilitation systems capable of “processing” these criminal minors.
When Rondos visited Somalia just hours before addressing the Subcommittee on Mar. 20 he noted that the next several months are absolutely crucial to the country’s future.
He stressed the need for effective judicial systems and institutions that are rooted in the grassroots and affect the needs of local communities.
Efforts cannot rely solely on the “EU and a collection of white people who feel good about helping others,” Rondos claimed, highlighting the need for solutions that include local voices.
Still, Rondos mentioned signs of hope within Mogadishu— he described movements of people returning to the city, investing in day-to-day life and opening new businesses.
Though still a threat, the Somali-based terrorist group Al-Shabaab is beginning to “melt away,” according to Rondos, who added that he observed “indications of a growing number of people affiliated with Al-Shabaab that want to detach themselves” from the outfit, though the core of the group remains active.
With cautious optimism, the importance of providing security for the Somali people remains a priority, Rondos said.
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