25 January 2011
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference by Special Adviser on Legal Issues Related to Somalia Piracy


A race was under way between Somali pirates and the rest of the world and, without fast, strong action, “we will reach a point of no return where we will be unable to turn things around”, warned the United Nations top official charged with tackling the legal issues related to Somali piracy.

At a Headquarters press conference, Jack Lang, Special Adviser on legal issues related to piracy off the coast of Somalia, responded to reporters’ questions about 25 recommendations — contained in a report discussed in the Security Council earlier today — for finding, prosecuting and imprisoning those responsible for piracy and armed robbery on the high seas off the Somali coast.

Piracy today was an economy, Mr. Lang said, which had taken on an industrial scope, thanks to the rapid sophistication of its methods, organizational structures and resources.  Pirate behaviour — the demand of high ransoms, use of advanced technologies and extreme talent in money-laundering — was similar to that of a mafia.  “There’s a machinery behind this and it functions quite well.”

Yet, he said, common forensic and police methods used to combat mafia organizations had not been employed.  In meetings with intelligence specialists, he had learned that, for far too long, attention to collecting evidence and following the money trail had lagged.  Bank note serial numbers, for example, had not been tracked, and fingerprints and DNA evidence had not been taken.

Responding to a question about the link between terrorism and piracy, he said the goal of piracy was to earn money; there was no underlying political goal.  Terrorism, on the other hand, notably committed by Al-Shabaab, was a fight for power.  It was religious, ideological and political.  The majority of the population in Puntland and Somaliland — northern territories where the creation of two special courts to combat piracy had been proposed — was against piracy on moral and religious grounds, as it fed drug use, prostitution and alcohol abuse.  But pirates tended to move towards southern Somalia, where Al-Shabaab was active.  If that situation continued, the nexus between the two extremes could grow.

Asked how the economic situation in Somalia had contributed, he reminded journalists that he was not responsible for the entire Somali question.  However, “we must propose a genuine plan of action”.  On the economic side, assistance must be provided to develop industries like livestock rearing, port development and fishing, all of which had been threatened by piracy.  On the penal and legal side, the link between economic development and combating piracy was very intimate.

As to whether his proposals represented a shift in emphasis, meaning that the solution to piracy rested with regional authorities rather than the Transitional Federal Government, he said that all his proposals had been set out with the support of the Transitional Federal Government.  The proposals in no way presupposed that Puntland or Somaliland should become autonomous or independent.  The entire country would benefit from pacifying those two northern regions, and if such an action plan was adopted, it would provide leverage to act on the situation in the rest of the country.

Pressed further on the issue, he said “we must have an informal view”.  It was a de facto situation, recognized by the Transitional Federal Government, in which local authorities were exerting a certain power.  The leaders in Puntland and Somaliland were called “presidents” and their teams were referred to as “ministers”, though they did not represent States.  If a development or prison building plan were decided upon, that must be done with the agreement of the Government in Mogadishu.

Asked to suggest a way for a United Nations-backed court to prosecute people under the age of 18, he said there were proposals on the table to address that issue.

Responding to a question on the decision to prosecute in the Republic of Korea suspected Somali pirates captured by that country’s military, he said “this doesn’t surprise me at all”, noting there were not enough countries that accepted the possibility of trying pirates. “These are crimes against international law.”  He hoped the example would be followed.  The Netherlands also had agreed to try individuals, making use of its universal jurisdiction, “and I say bravo”.

Pressed as to whether it was not the laxest stance by some Governments that had allowed piracy to become an extremely lucrative activity, he said the problem with Somalia was that there was no State.  That had been the case for 20 years.

As to how much longer he would stay in his position, Mr. Lang said his mandate would end when he submitted a report.  “I wanted the mandate to be short but intense.”  He had visited 50 countries, spoken with 100 experts and he would not be in the position forever.  He had accepted the position on a volunteer basis and it was with great pleasure that he had undertaken his task.  “I have a lot of irons in the fire,” he said, adding that he was still a member of the French Parliament.

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For information media • not an official record