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Child pirates: A world away from play

Limiting the use of children in piracy

- March 20, 2013

The photo from the cover of the Dalhousie Marine Piracy Project's latest report. (UN photo/Tobin Jones)

When an international naval vessel is being attacked by modern day pirates off the coast of Somalia or Nigeria, the crew is not scrutinizing the pirates’ appearances — they are focusing on staying alive. But if they did get a good look at the group of armed pirates, they would see that sometimes, up to one in three of them are children.

“You can get killed just as easily by a 10-year-old as by a 30-year-old,” says Hugh Williamson, lead investigator of the Dalhousie Marine Piracy Project.

Children are being used in piracy for the same reasons they’re used in armed conflicts around the world: they are cheap, easily available and easy to lead, says Prof. Williamson. But the lasting impact on both the children involved and the piracy market is massive.

When “catch and release” no longer works


Piracy is complicated from a legal perspective, in that the attacks do not take place within national borders. Because of this, many countries adopt the “catch and release” tactic, confiscating the pirates’ weapons and releasing them back to the high seas instead of dealing with the legal process.

But recognizing the role of children complicates the legal scenario even further, because vastly different standards exist for dealing with juvenile criminals. Not only do countries have a obligation to deal with children differently in the legal system, they are bound by obligations of the International Labour Organization (ILO). Piracy is considered one of its “worst forms of labour,” which means that nations have a responsibility to remove children from the line of work.

Prof. Williamson, an adjunct professor with the Marine Affairs Program, has actually been criticized at international meetings for raising the issue. He’s been confronted by dignitaries and delegates who prefer terms like “possible juvenile pirate suspects” as opposed to “children in piracy.” It’s easier to just avoid the problem, which is what Prof. Williamson and his team of researchers are trying to change.

“Our attitude is that if it’s everybody’s problem, then everyone has an entitlement to work on these issues,” he says. “A country cannot turn around and say it’s not their problem.”

Huge financial impacts


Last year, the two-year interdisciplinary project, which goes by the acronym PIRACY (Policy Development and Interdisciplinary Research for Actions on Coastal Communities, Youth and Seafarers), hosted an international workshop to identify areas of piracy that are not being dealt with adequately despite the large amounts of money spent on combating the issue — and money wasted because of inaction.

It’s estimated that the global transportation industry loses $7-12 billion each year due to piracy, raising the price of consumer goods that are travelling the globe.

“For $7-12 billion a year, I could hire every pirate in Somalia into a semi-professional soccer league, provide them all with uniforms and have them play soccer,” says Prof. Williamson, speaking hypothetically to the opportunity cost of avoiding the piracy issue. “It would be a lot cheaper doing that then paying the cost of piracy.”

Given that cutting off child labour would represent a huge economic hit to global piracy, the Dalhousie Marine Piracy Project, working with the Dalhousie-based Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative, is developing strategies to combat the issue, starting with raising awareness.

“If you can get the problem recognized and have it added to the responsibilities of international agencies so they will be looking at the issue and identifying the problem, then you’ll start getting some international action,” says Prof. Williamson.

If the use of children in piracy can be recognized as an international crime against humanity, then systematically the adult pirates coercing children into their crews can be arrested for that, as well as for their piracy crimes.

Another asset will be reliable data. Prof. Williamson is pushing for the international shipping organizations to start recording the numbers of children in piracy, in order to address the severity of the problem.

Next, the project is seeking support for a handbook that would help organizations address children in piracy.

“The idea would be that it is a set of rules, procedures and best practices to be distributed to security forces and shipping companies so that when they run into a situation, they would know which steps to take and how to deal with it,” says Prof. Williamson, suggesting that the Child Soldiers Handbook will be a starting point.

Fire prevention


Despite their work so far, the people involved in the Marine Piracy Project see that the international community is doing more firefighting than it needs to. Consider a country like Nigeria, which has become a new hotbed for piracy and where the world really only took notice when international shipping community was affected.

“The easiest way to stop a fire is don’t let it get started in the first place,” says Prof. Williamson. For that reason, the project is working on pre-emptive strategies such as local radio programs and a PR campaign to encourage parents and children not to get involved in piracy.

“If we can keep youth from getting involved, it can really weaken the capabilities of piracy to evolve into a well-organized entity.”

The project still has a long way to go, but Prof. Williamson is pleased with the work that they’ve accomplished to date.

“The first step to any solution is recognizing you’ve got a problem, and we’re recognizing it and publicizing it.”

Learn more about the Dalhousie Marine Piracy Project at its website.


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