#19 hope
Elizabeth Norman

Dangerous Waters

Beyond the world’s attention, violent crimes take place on unstable ground: Child piracy creates a legal dilemma that puts vulnerable juveniles at risk.

In March 2011, Indian naval forces liberated the Mozambique fishing vessel Vega Five, four months after it had originally been seized by a group of maritime pirates. Of the 61 people apprehended by the Indian authorities aboard the Vega Five, 25 individuals – 40% of the entire pirate crew – were under 18 and classed as children under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), with four of those detained believed to be under the age of 12.

Far from being an isolated case, Vega Five highlighted an increasing trend in the use of children and adolescents for maritime piracy missions. This phenomenon has continued to grow over the last five years, and between 10% and 20% of people apprehended for piracy on the Indian Ocean have been children according to the Seychellois Department of Legal Affairs. In addition, research conducted by the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative in partnership with the Dalhousie Marine Piracy Project has estimated that as many as one in three pirates could be younger than 18. While the best-documented cases of child piracy relate to those off the coast of Somalia, there is also evidence that children are used in pirate activity off the coasts of Nigeria and Haiti, and in the Gulf of Guinea and the Straits of Malacca.

…child soldiers were escaping from Islamic militias only to get involved in piracy.

Commanders of piracy missions choose to recruit children for reasons similar to those of armed leaders who recruit child soldiers: they are easy to manipulate, often more lithe and nimble, and seen as expendable by those who seek to use them. Correspondingly, just as child soldiers are often forced to be accomplices to dangerous and harmful situations, such as torture, murder, and kidnapping, juveniles involved in maritime piracy are often subject to the same conditions. Additionally, the countries in which piracy occurs are often countries in which children are also regularly recruited and used by armed groups. This, in turn, sometimes results in a natural transition, one that enables children to move from armed conflict into piracy. In 2010 Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN’s former Representative for Children in Armed Conflict, visited Somalia in 2010 and reported that child soldiers were escaping from Islamic militias only to get involved in piracy.

…limited employment and educational opportunities for young people (…) may make piracy appear a worthwhile risk (…)

Not only are there similarities in the reasons for recruiting children for both pirate and armed groups; there are also parallels in the circumstances that lead children to voluntarily sign up. For child soldiers, research suggests that a lack of other options can often lead to voluntary enlistment. Conflict in some areas of Somalia, along with the continued absence of a strong central government and the presence of recurring famine, has led to limited employment and educational opportunities for young people. This may make piracy appear to be a worthwhile risk – especially to those who are expected to help contribute to their family incomes. For many young people, the idea that the pirates operating out of Somalia today are doing so to “protect their waters” might also work as a form of persuasion. The continued presence of illegal trawlers and their frequent attacks on innocent fishermen may well serve to convince juvenile pirates that they are working for a “good cause”.

In 2011 three teenage boys faced the possibility of the death penalty in a Malaysian piracy case (…)

Despite the documented phenomenon of child piracy, there is currently no international standard in place to protect the rights of the child once they are apprehended during a piracy mission. This has led to a lack of consistency in cases of captured child pirates, which has only been made worse by the fact that piracy is a crime with universal jurisdiction – meaning that the way an arrested child is treated is dependent upon the country that captures them. This has led to considerable concerns that the rights of the children in question are violated once they are caught. In 2011 three teenage boys faced the possibility of the death penalty in a Malaysian piracy case, for instance, in direct contradiction to their right to life as laid out in article six of the CRC, which Malaysia ratified in 1995. In other instances children have been apprehended and are now being kept in the same prison cells as their former pirate commanders, leaving them vulnerable to continued abuse and manipulation.

In a large majority of cases, the lack of any legislation means that many children are not arrested when captured and merely have their weapons confiscated before being released. This is known as the “catch and release” approach and it has been criticised for allowing children to return to the same hazardous situations. In addition, there are also concerns that this method will actively encourage pirate commanders to use children in missions, as they know that they will simply be allowed to return to shore, even if apprehended.

This lack of consistency in the treatment of children involved in piracy cases frequently endangers children, further highlighting the need for international regulations to be established. Such legislation is essential for ensuring that children captured on suspicion of piracy are treated fairly, and that each child’s rights are respected.

Children need to come to terms with the actions they have taken, the reasons why, and the consequences.

The current lack of guidance on how best to respond to child pirates not only harms the children involved, it can also create serious problems for the adult victims of piracy attacks. Much like those faced with child solders, those who face child pirates are often left with a moral dilemma regarding how best to respond. They are confronted with a child who is also a pirate, and most likely capable of, or has perhaps already committed, extremely violent crimes. Misjudging the danger may result in deadly physical harm to the people attacked by or attempting to apprehend the pirates. Moreover, it can damage children’s overall development if their crimes are completely ignored once they are captured. Children need to come to terms with the actions they have taken, the reasons why, and the consequences. They need to be able to accept that they were both victims and perpetrators of violence if they are to make sense of what has happened to them and move past it.

The international community is committed to arresting and prosecuting those who recruit child soldiers, to child disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR), and to the necessity of addressing the root causes of child soldiering wherever possible. Adapting these practices and applying them to cases involving child pirates could offer a real solution to the legal vacuum. This would provide child pirates with protection by reintegrating them into their communities while at the same time focusing on capturing and prosecuting those who recruited and exploited them in the first place. It would also ensure that those most likely to be faced with juvenile pirates, such as navel and private security forces, are given the correct training for how to respond in a way that protects the safety of all involved. Additionally, because the third measure focuses solely on tackling the overall root causes of piracy, it would serve to protect not just the rights of former child pirates, but also the rights of all those who may be in danger of future recruitment.

Only by tackling the root causes of piracy, and bringing to justice those who recruit and exploit children to this end – rather than the children themselves – will the international community successfully combat the problem of juvenile maritime piracy. As long as young people view piracy as the only chance they have to better their circumstances, and as long as those who run pirate operations continue to see children as a valuable business asset, child piracy is very unlikely to decline.

…there has also never been a better time for the international community to look at addressing the issue of child piracy (…)

A lack of research into the issue of piracy in general, along with the problem of adequately assessing the ages of those who have been apprehended, is partly to blame for the current lack of an agreed international strategy. While there has been an increase in research into the problem of child piracy in recent years, the issue remains relatively unknown by the general public and it continues to be overlooked by international politics. However, there has also never been a better time for the international community to look at addressing the issue of child piracy and working in partnership with the Somali authorities to accomplish this. Last year Somalia became the 196th country to ratify to the CRC, which means the state and the international community now share a legal, as well as a moral, duty to act to protect the rights of child pirates.

Photo: “2012_10_24_AMISOM_Lido_Beach_C” by AMISOM Public Information
2012 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (1.0)

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