A first step has been taken to raise awareness of the horrific abuse of children in piracy with the release of a handbook for the maritime security sector.
The Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative began academic research, in collaboration with Human Rights at Sea, the Dalhousie University Marine Piracy Project and the 100 Series Rules, in 2011. Following on from that, in 2016, Darin Reeves, Director of Training for the Dallaire Initiative, led their creation of Children Affected by Maritime Piracy: A Handbook for Maritime Security Sector Actors.
On behalf of the Dallaire Initiative, Darin explains how children are involved, how their recruitment is intertwined with terrorism and how adults confronting them can suffer the consequences.
What is the scale of children’s involvement in piracy?
Currently there is very little objective evidence, in large part due to a lack of reporting and research. It is much the same when it comes to estimating the number of child soldiers around the world.
However, based on evidence from pirates detained off the coast of Somalia, a large number of those directly engaged in piracy are under the age of 18. In fact, it is estimated that in 2014 up to 20 percent of all maritime pirates apprehended off the coast of East Africa were under the age of 18.
Within the Handbook, we quoted Rajat Pandit at The Times of India:
“In 2011, the Indian Navy announced that 25 of 61 recently arrested pirates were under the age of 15, with four of them estimated to be just 11 years old, while reports from the area consistently tell of an increased use of children to commit acts of piracy as older, established pirates remained ashore while recruiting and sending children out to sea to continue attacking ships and their crews.”
We also quoted the 6719th meeting of the U.N. Security Council, held on 22 February 2012, where it was reported:
“The United Nations envoy for children and armed conflict has reported a trend showing increased use of children recruited to seize ships for ransom, and that former child soldiers were noted to move from Islamist extremist groups to become pirates. This trend was underscored in a report by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime in 2012, citing strong evidence of cooperation between Al-Shabaab terrorists and pirates.”
How is terrorism intertwined with piracy?
The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime noted strong evidence of a link between Al-Shabaab rebels and maritime pirates in a 2012 report to the U.N. Security Council. This symbiotic relationship is not one of mutual support, rather it reflects in part the desire by both parties to use a common “resource” – children – to take part in their activities.
The fact that maritime piracy in a particular area may ebb and flow is of no surprise; what surprised us through our research is the link between this activity and the resurgence of armed conflict ashore.
For example, following the armed entry by Kenya into Somalia in 2011 to attack Al-Shabaab strongholds, the rate of maritime piracy attacks – and the attendant use of children – decreased. Subsequent and recent attacks by African and American forces against Al-Shabaab weakened its position, and a rise in maritime piracy was noted.
It is therefore likely that as such armed groups ashore who use children as soldiers are reduced, the community of maritime pirates seizes the opportunity to recruit and use these very same children – in some cases further abusing those youths who have only just been disarmed, demobilized and reintegrated back to their families, communities and societies.
How is a “child” defined, especially in cultures where children often work at ages typically younger than Western cultures?
This is a question that defies universal acceptance. As a result, in writing the Handbook I adapted the Paris Principles and Guidelines definition of Child Soldiers to all “Child[ren] Associated with Maritime Piracy as:
“any person below 18 years of age who is or has been recruited or used by a maritime armed group or criminal organization in any capacity, including but not limited to children, boys and girls, used as sailors, fighters, cooks, porters, messengers, spies or for sexual purposes. It does not only refer to a child who is taking or has taken a direct part in hostilities.”
Beyond actively participating in hijackings, a child may assist adult confederates in various auxiliary capacities. For example, Andrew Mwangura, director of the Seafarers’ Assistance Programme, has noted that young Somali girls are often hired by pirates to cook, clean and guard hostages.
In April 2011, Spiegel International published a story that aptly illustrates the reality of child recruitment, when it wrote on the recruitment of Abdiwali, a Somali child pirate who was apprehended during the liberation of the MV Taipan and subsequently put on trial in Germany.
Abdiwali said that he had to begin fending for himself at the age of 10. At 13, he worked as a fisherman and piloted a small motorboat, where he was paid $2-3 a day. He learned to drive a fishing boat. They would spend weeks at sea and when they returned, his wages were barely enough to survive for the next week.
One day, a man offered him $500 for a better job. It wasn’t until he was on board the dhow that they told him that a ship [the MV Taipan] was to be hijacked. Hunger and poverty, he said, had motivated him to commit this crime and he never asked himself whether he wanted to be a part of it. It had all seemed self-evident to him.
Why are children chosen over adults?
A number of experts in the world of private maritime security agree that children are frequently employed as interlocutors during ransom negotiations because they are widely perceived as being irrational and unpredictable. Somali pirates have discovered that insurance companies and hostages’ family members can be frightened into paying a higher ransom if a child acts as the pirates’ primary negotiator.
Adult pirates often claim not to know that it is illegal to employ children. They would like to increase the size of their piracy force so they can assume control over more piracy vessels or improve their ability to attack target vessels. Children are viewed as being obedient and easily manipulated and are therefore seen as posing less of a potential threat to piracy commanders.
Children are agile and effective at scaling small or light ladders and can get into tighter spaces than adults. Children are perceived as naive and brave, thus willing to take risks without contemplating the consequences. Children are considered cheap, expendable and easily found in large numbers.
Also, children require very limited training. Once they can handle a small boat, shoot and dismantle and clean a gun, they are ready to be employed on board piracy vessels.
Importantly, children pose a moral problem for mariners, as most professional sailors and maritime security sector actors will hesitate to shoot when faced with a child holding a gun.
Are some children particularly vulnerable?
There are many factors that can increase a child’s vulnerability to recruitment: being impoverishment; travelling unaccompanied; being an orphan; homelessness; living in an internally displaced persons or refugee camp; being female; being illiterate; having a relationship or friendship with someone who has joined a maritime piracy group; escaping from forced labour (e.g. fishing, mine, factory, field worker, etc.); belonging to a community that hosts a maritime piracy group; belonging to a persecuted ethnic or religious minority; being in conflict with the law; and being addicted to drugs and/or alcohol.
This is in no way an exhaustive list, and it is a cyclic thing. Children, raised and inculcated at an early age to the violence and depravity, enter a cycle of violence that only perpetuates conflict, both at sea and ashore.
What are the moral dilemmas for people involved in shipping or maritime security?
To borrow from a statement made by our founder General Roméo Dallaire, while speaking in the context of child soldiers: “Shock hits you as you realize this soldier is not a man or a professional – not your equal in age, strength, training, understanding. This soldier is a child, in the tattered remnants of a military uniform, with dozens more children behind him.”
Aside from the physical threat that child maritime pirates may present mariners and maritime security sector actors, facing them can also cause psychological harm in a number of ways.
One of the most likely sources of psychological harm is employing deadly force against children. There is a duality inherent in this situation: they are both a child, someone who is vulnerable, impressionable, frequently irrational and deserving of the utmost protection; and at the same time, they are also potentially violent, unpredictable individuals who can threaten the sailor, and they may view themselves more as an adult than a child.
When facing a child pirate, the mariner or maritime security sector actor may have to choose between defending their own life, their shipmate’s, their ship and sparing the life of a child. Such decisions are never easy to make, especially when under the time pressures of a potentially deadly engagement.
This can lead to what is termed a “moral injury” – when one perpetrates an act against another person that breaks with one’s sense of morals. This could, for instance, occur if a mariner or maritime security sector actor shoots and kills a child pirate or, shocked by the situation, fails to react appropriately and others are harmed as a consequence.
The symptoms of moral injuries may include shame or guilt for the act, flashbacks to the act and difficulties sleeping or concentrating.
Psychological harm can also be caused by witnessing or being subjected to traumatic events, such as being threatened with death or having a colleague killed. These may result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other operational stress injuries, which also exhibits symptoms of flashbacks, concentration and sleep difficulties and hyper-arousal.
Even if symptoms do not lead to a clinical diagnosis of PTSD, traumatic events can also lead to depression, alcohol use, relationship problems aggression, or other mental health challenges.
How these types of operational stress may impact security sector actors facing child maritime pirates has not been specifically researched.
In order to better prepare mariners and maritime security sector actors for the moral and psychological dilemmas associated with engaging children associated with maritime piracy, improved effort must also be made to create a reporting system. Incident reports from sea should be effectively analyzed and the results fed back into the training cycle.
Finally, all mariners and maritime security sector actors who have faced children associated with maritime piracy should be offered quality post-incident counselling to help mitigate any ensuing negative psychological effects.
What do you hope to achieve with the Handbook and your involvement with the Dallaire Initiative?
Our goal, as with child soldiers, is to end their recruitment and use by proactively educating and training those who face this phenomenon most directly and most commonly. We aim to reduce the perceived advantage of using children in this role, and increase public awareness and abhorrence for such a practice.
If there are no advantages to using children, leaving only their disadvantages, such as being weaker, less resilient, easier to distract and less capable of advanced training, and leaving those responsible for their recruitment and use subject to increased legal sanction, then we will begin to stop their use all together.
What successes have you had so far?
We have succeeded in helping to raise awareness of children associated with maritime piracy and their special needs, which has in part seen the establishment of special processes for captured and detained child pirates. We have also succeeded in engaging civilian mariner organizations as well as state naval forces who are interested in training their personnel on how to better deal with children associated with maritime piracy.
How does the Handbook fit with the 100 Series Rules of Force?
Much like the Handbook, the 100 Series Rules of Force was the first of its kind to provide the international maritime community with a model set of rules to govern the use of force in self defence. While Rules of Engagement are a well-known military idea, setting out the circumstances for military, including naval forces to lawfully use force in order to achieve their mission, prior to the 100 Series no such guidance or benchmark was available within the civilian sphere.
With these rules however, private maritime security companies now have guidance that incorporates international law and internationally generally accepted legal recommendations regarding the use of force in situations where the concept of self defence is engaged.
When combined with the guidance found within the Handbook, which itself also seeks to proactively educate and train civilian mariners and marine security sector actors, members of the maritime industry are better equipped to deal with this phenomena.
How do you view Human Rights at Sea?
Human Rights at Sea is a cutting-edge organization helping to shine a light on the previously ignored, misunderstood or simply suppressed issue of human rights beyond borders – on the high seas. In many ways, mariners are more vulnerable than those who remain ashore, as once at sea it is only the “law of the flag” that will apply – including that state’s human rights legislation. Moreover, even the flag state human rights legislation is often scant protection, as there is frequently no investigative or enforcement mechanism on board a merchant vessel to protect the sailor.
Human Rights at Sea is therefore filling a much needed and valuable role, protecting sailors who are otherwise without protection and raising awareness of issues that have previously gone unreported, unacknowledged and unaddressed by the international community. It has been a great pleasure working with David Hammond and Human Rights at Sea, and this is a partnership that we look forward to maintaining for many years to come.
The issue of maritime piracy can be found wherever ships are at sea, and as one of the first crimes recognized under international law for enforcement and prosecution by individual states, it remains in a class of its own. Likewise the associated abuse of using children to engage in this criminal activity. By working collaboratively with Human Rights at Sea and other like-minded organizations, the Dallaire Initiative will continue to shine a light on this abuse and work towards the day when children used as maritime pirates is a thing of the past.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.