There are ways to "negotiate" with pirates!

Thanks to Mike

By WAYNE LONG / NYT:   Gang Up on Pirates

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In 1995,  the water supply for Mogadishu, the capital, was shut off by the United Nations humanitarian agencies until a hostage who worked for another aid organization was released. On the first day of the shutoff, the women who collected water from public distribution points yelled at the kidnappers; on the second day they stoned them; on the third day they shot at them; on the fourth day, the hostage was released.

THE Navy’s heroic rescue of the sea captain Richard Phillips from his captors has left the rest of the world trying to figure out how to safely free the 200 or so seamen being held hostage by pirates in the Indian Ocean.

There are generally two approaches to hostage situations. One is to negotiate with the kidnappers to gain a conditional release of the hostages. The other is to stage a violent rescue in which kidnappers, hostages and rescuers alike all run the risk of losing their lives.

I have been involved in both hostage negotiations and in hostage rescues. In the case of pirates off eastern Africa, it would appear that having many hostages of different nationalities, spread over a large area, favors the first approach. And yet the Navy’s rescue of Capt. Phillips, and the universal condemnation of piracy, suggests that negotiation and the payment of ransom might not be a good idea.

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But there might be another way — an approach that could be run through the United Nations and that would be available both to governmental and nongovernmental authorities acting for the interned seamen.

During my 10 years as the chief security adviser for the United Nations in Somalia, my team and I negotiated releases in more than a dozen hostage cases, several of which involved piracy. Some of the hostages were United Nations personnel, and some were not.

In the situations that did not involve United Nations workers, our team was asked by the concerned embassies in Nairobi to pursue cases on their behalf. These countries, whose citizens had been taken hostage, had no presence in fractious Somalia — and we did.

Figuring out how to be of help wasn’t easy. Eventually, after long and heated internal discussion, the United Nations security team persuaded the United Nations country team that the most effective approach would be to use humanitarian aid and assistance as a lever to gain release of hostages.

Somalia is pretty much a stateless state. Humanitarian aid and clan association are major centers of gravity. In fact, clan leaders stay in power in part by controlling the distribution of aid. Our strategy was therefore simple: United Nations assistance was withheld from the Somali clan or region by which or in which hostages were being held until those hostages were released. In every case there was a release, and in no case were hostages harmed or ransom paid. (On the downside, no pirates were brought to trial or punished in any way.)

In 1995, for example, the water supply for Mogadishu, the capital, was shut off by the United Nations humanitarian agencies until a hostage who worked for another aid organization was released. On the first day of the shutoff, the women who collected water from public distribution points yelled at the kidnappers; on the second day they stoned them; on the third day they shot at them; on the fourth day, the hostage was released.

On another occasion, in 2000, two French yachtsmen were taken by pirates in their 40-foot sloop off Somalia as they made passage from Djibouti to Zanzibar. The French Embassy in Nairobi asked the United Nations team to help, and I entered into face-to-face negotiations in the remote port of Bossaso.

After demonstrating that the hostages were alive, the pirates demanded $1 million in ransom. I responded that the United Nations would suspend all civic improvement in the region — education, animal husbandry, vaccination, water projects. The aid would resume when the hostages were released.

This drove a wedge between the pirates and their home clan, the Darod. Clan elders put pressure on the pirates. After several weeks, the Frenchmen were released to me in return for resumption of all United Nations humanitarian aid. (I was unable to negotiate the release of the yacht.)

Although this tactic sometimes took longer to get results than the hostages’ home countries liked, the divisions that arose in hostage takers’ clans when aid was suspended were extremely effective in creating the conditions for release.

It’s worth noting, too, that though pirates are at sea, their families and clans are not. If life can be made uncomfortable in their communities, there’s a good chance that pirates can be persuaded to give up their hostages. (This negotiation equation could change if the Shabaab, an Islamist insurgent group that has become increasingly powerful in Somalia, gets in the kidnapping business.)

The Obama administration has indicated that it sees piracy as a global threat and that it will therefore reach out to international partners to fight the problem. A partnership with the United Nations is probably not the best course for aggressive suppression of the pirates. But when it comes to the hostages being held, the targeted application of United Nations leverage just might result in the release of innocent people who have been held hostage for far too long.

Wayne Long, a former Army colonel, was the United Nations’ chief security officer in Somalia from 1993 to 2003.

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