From the Field: On the frontlines of the UN’s counter-piracy efforts in eastern Africa

UNODC’s Alan Cole (right) with Kenya’s Commissioner of Prisons Isaya Osugo

3 February 2011 – As the UN International Maritime Organization (IMO) launched its anti-piracy plan in London today, one person, Alan Cole, was paying particularly close attention to what it will mean on the ground.

Mr. Cole had good reason to be. He is the point man for the UN’s growing counter-piracy programme in eastern Africa, the world’s hot-spot for modern-day piracy.

Based in Nairobi, Kenya, the 42-year-old Briton is the programme coordinator for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) efforts to help deal with suspected pirates who have been caught in the region. The trained lawyer also brings a unique, hands-on perspective to the issue, and the dangers, involved – his previous employment includes serving 20 years in the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy, where he often took part in boarding operations similar to the ones currently being carried out by anti-piracy patrols off Somalia’s coastline.

“It’s a huge challenge to be working in Somalia, a deeply troubled country with huge under-investment in infrastructure and basically all other areas,” Mr. Cole said. “However, justice needs to be done and UNODC has allowed me to do that – we’re making a lasting difference to the Somali Basin and its people.”

Over the past two years, piracy has once again come to the attention of the international community, with maritime trade under threat and ransom payments to pirates rising to the millions of dollars – particularly in sea-lanes off Somalia’s coastline. The number of pirate attacks around the world had been either stabilizing or falling in past years, before skyrocketing in 2008-2009, with the increase due almost entirely to the dramatic increase of piracy off Somalia.

The east African country, which has been without a functioning national government for more than 20 years, is not the only area of the world affected by maritime piracy, but in 2009, more than half the global piracy attacks were ascribed to Somali pirates.

A prisoner painting a prison wall with paint supplied by UNODC, as part of a beautification programme to enhance the pride and feeling of well-being amongst the inmates and prison staff.

Starting in May 2009, with support from the European Union and under Mr. Cole’s leadership, UNODC’s Counter-Piracy Programme initially involved only one country – Kenya – and has now expanded into six countries in the region. It centres on a comprehensive approach based on three main objectives: fair and efficient trials and imprisonment in regional centres; humane and secure imprisonment in Somalia; and fair and efficient trials in Somalia.

While acknowledging that a lasting solution to piracy off Somalia’s coastline involves ensuring stability, which may be a long way away, development and an effective criminal justice system in the country, Mr. Cole said that until that is achieved, the prosecutions of suspected pirates can help deter further acts of piracy and drives home the message that these crimes will be punished.

However, due to concerns over the respect for international and human rights standards in the criminal justice system in Somalia, many countries with naval forces patrolling in the area have been hesitant to transfer suspected pirates to Somalia for prosecution. UNODC has helped put in place prisoner transfer guidelines and helped train detectives so that suspected pirates can be tried in neighbouring countries, while at the same time, developing Somalia’s own judicial and prison system.

The Counter-Piracy Programme helped construct and open Somalia’s first maximum security prison in 50 years, located in Hargeisa, the main city of Somaliland, in Somalia’s north-west, an autonomous region which has declared its independence from the rest of the country. 

The prison system in Somalia has suffered from chronic under-funding but Hargeisa, which opened in November 2010 with the assistance of the United Nations Development Programme, will meet the challenges more effectively than its equivalents in Kenya or Seychelles.

“I’ve seen some prisons in Somalia where the conditions are absolutely appalling. It’s hard to walk around those prisons and see how these men, women and in some instances children have to live,” Mr. Cole said, adding that none of the country’s existing prisons can compare with the Hargeisa prison.

An overcrowded prison in Puntland, Somalia. UNODC will be improving building new prisons and improving conditions in other prisons throughout Puntland and Somaliland.

“All other prisons we’ve visited in Somalia have poor sanitation, dirty drinking water, no radios and often, no vehicles,” he said. “We’ve trained the Hargeisa prison staff, they now have uniforms, and the prisoners themselves live in conditions which comply with international minimum standards where they are treated with dignity and helped to rehabilitate themselves.”

The Counter-Piracy Programme’s activities have also included helping police detectives from the region meet to exchange ideas and best practices, establishing a court-house for piracy trials in Mombasa, Kenya, and training prison staff in the Seychelles, where ten per cent of the prison population is currently made up of Somali pirates. “The Seychelles is a small country bravely punching well above its weight and it was wonderful to be able to give them some sorely-needed assistance,” Mr. Cole said.

He added that another major challenge is ensuring that the Counter-Terrorism Programme provides lasting benefits to the police, the judicial systems and the prisons it is aiding.

“It would be wrong, and unfair, to just ‘prop up’ systems and then walk away,” Mr. Cole said. “We are continuously consulting with a wide range of stakeholders and working with them and we are able to deliver systems, programmes, training and equipment that are changing things for the better and hopefully standing the test of time.”

However, the human dimension of his work is what drives him.

“What does shock a bit is seeing the pirates when they’re first arrested; they’re usually dehydrated, undernourished, sometimes they’ve lost friends or family in their ‘missions’ and have little or no concept of what is happening to them,” Mr. Cole said. “Because of this, we provide interpreters from the moment they step ashore so they understand the trial process they will face – they’re accused of serious offences and UNODC is committed to ensuring they are fairly and humanely treated.” 

Almost two years into his job, the counter-piracy expert noted that he was motivated by a strong personal sense of justice and a desire to make a lasting difference to the region where small and under-resourced countries are making “courageous and determined efforts to fight this terrible ‘industry.’”


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