Naval intervention against Somali pirates

Before the epidemic began, the US already patrolled the Gulf of Aden in warships from their base in Djibouti. Active navies in the area working in isolation, usually responding to a distress call if they were in the area.


Then in April 2008, pirates hijacked a Spanish tuna fishing boat and a French luxury yacht. For Spain and France, the attacks meant pirates now directly threatened their citizens and their state’s economic and political interests. They spearheaded the international pressure on the UNSC to pass a six-month (June to December 2008) resolution authorising member countries to send warships into Somali waters in pursuit of pirates. By August, hijack reports had more than doubled from the previous year and began to escalate rapidly. In December 2008, the UN authorised naval intervention.

In response the navies of the world clamoured to participate in three major naval interventions: the European Union-organised EUNAVFOR, NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield, and the Combined Maritime Forces.


As members of NATO's Operation Ocean Shield, forces from the Royal Navy's HMS Montrose intercept suspected pirates.

Under international law, pirates are not combatants, they are ordinary criminals. So despite the use of military forces to intervene against them, naval intervention against pirates is a law enforcement operation, not a military one. In carrying out their duty, law enforcement officials are expected to apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms. Reasonable force may be used to secure a range of objectives, including the defence of others from violence or prevention of a serious crime, but intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life

With this in mind, the UN expected navies to capture and detain pirates for prosecution. The problem for the UN was it had no legal or practical capacity in its own right to act as a suppressive force, so it held no control over the actions of EUNAVOR, NATO, and the CMF. All had mandates independent of the UN and retained their own leadership and agendas outside of anti-piracy operations. Crucially, the UN’s resolutions dictated that no state could intervene against the pirates on land, traditionally the most effective suppressive measure. All the UN could do was become a coordinating system for collections of initiatives organised by member states.  The UN’s representatives soon discovered they could not force navies to capture, detain and arrange to prosecute pirates. Even worse, the navies began to actively avoid capturing pirates.

The return of convoy

In a development reminiscent of the difficulties suppressing piracy in the Caribbean, the complexity of the intervention/prosecution approach meant ‘naval intervention’ soon turned into a more passive patrol and convoy response. Unlike their historic predecessors, 21st century insurers did not advocate for convoy and it did not appear as a component of the UN’s suppression strategy.

Naval patrols against pirates proved a relatively simple exercise. After the US-commanded CMF established its Maritime Security Patrol Area in August 2008 and EUNAVFOR devised its Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor through the Gulf of Aden, navies worked cooperatively to escort merchant ships through the region.


According to the Chinese, 21st century technology had not mitigated the challenges of convoy engendered three hundred years earlier. The difficulty was still coordinating escorts for merchant vessels with different sizes, weights, speeds, performance and defence capabilities when they all arrived at different times at the rendezvous points. 

Crucially, the move towards patrols and convoy meant naval intervention was not the suppressive instrument the UN intended them to be. While they certainly acted as a deterrent measure, they did nothing to hold pirates to account, nor stop individuals from becoming pirates in the first place.


Next: Prosecution