Is ATALANTA a Humanitarian Mission?

By Christian Bueger

European politicians, diplomats and military persistently argue in public that the EU’s anti-piracy mission ATALANTA is a humanitarian mission. “Protecting the transports of the World Food Programme is the top priority of the operation” is a statement heard frequently. Now, it is true that the frigates of ATALANTA provide safe routes for vessels transporting WFP goods. Yet, does that justify the claim that ATALANTA is a humanitarian mission? In this contribution I argue that the current justification of ATALANTA as a humanitarian mission is exceptionally weak. I proceed in speculating why official spokespersons although they are certainly aware of the weakness of the argumentation, nonetheless rely on such a justification.

Justifying Atalanta as a humanitarian mission

In principle two arguments can be made why ATALANTA has humanitarian objectives. The first is related to the Somali people dependent on humanitarian aid, the second to the fate of seafarers kidnapped by piracy organizations. The former is frequently raised by official spokespersons, the latter less so.

According to estimates approximately 70% of the Somali population is in need of humanitarian aid, many of them are Internally Displaced Persons. The WFP is the major provider of humanitarian aid and has shipped an estimated amount of half a million ton of food into Somalia since late 2007. In 2009, it provided food supplies to 3.3 Million people. To do so the WFP is dependent on commercial shipping companies. Since the increase of piracy attack off the coast of Somalia WFP’s faced two major logistical problems. The first is that shipping companies were increasingly reluctant to contract with WFP due to security concerns. It became difficult to find reliable partners in the transport industry. Secondly, due to the increasing risk level for transporting goods to Somalia the prices went up significantly. In other words instead of buying food and other essential goods, WFP had to spend a significantly higher amount for transport.

Hence it is unsurprising that WFP representatives requested from the international community to act against piracy. Indeed the first mentioning of the piracy problem in official UN documents stems from discussing the need to protect WFP vessels. Since 2007 vessels transporting goods for WFP are protected by ships from the European Union. Resolution 1772 (2007) (par. 18) urged the international community to assist the WFP. Since Resolution 1816 (2008), however, the protection of WFP transports is only one aspect among others and emphasis has clearly shifted towards containing piracy. In other words the resolutions are fairly clear that the piracy problem is only partially a humanitarian one.

If we explore the facts a similar observation can be made. According to WFP information the programme has about 3 to 4 monthly transports going into Somalia. Before operation ATALANTA and the other naval operations were launched, a single ship was sufficient to escort those transports. If a single ship is sufficient to do the job, the question arises, what the other 20plus ships under the flag of ATALANTA are doing? Phrased otherwise, protecting WFP vessels is certainly part of the tasks of the European fleet, but hardly the major one.

If the humanitarian argument justifying ATALANTA as protection of WFP aid is fairly weak, another humanitarian argument can be made. Namely that ATALANTA is an attempt to provide for the protection of seamen. An estimated number of 20.000 ships pass the Gulf of Aden annually. If we estimate that each ship is crewed by an average of 15, in a conservative approximation three hundred thousand seamen are under constant threat of being kidnapped and seriously harmed. Indeed at present 550 crew members are held hostage by pirates. If, to rely on a thought example, 300.000 people of an ethnic minority were significantly threatened in a situation of civil war there would be an easy to reach agreement that providing protection to them is a worthwhile and important objective. Yet although seamen are arguably the main victims of piracy, and a strong humanitarian justification for military action could be made in this regard, such an argumentation is astonishingly absent from official statements and documents.

In summary, a justification of ATALANTA as humanitarian mission by the WFP argument is exceptionally weak, and the seamen argument is not made. Then the question arises, why do official spokespersons nonetheless persistently frame ATALANTA as a humanitarian mission in using the WFP argument? In the next section I speculate about reasons.

What’s the purpose of the humanitarian justification?

At least four reasons can be identified for why official spokespersons continue to use the WFP justification.

The first concerns the European publics. In a democratically constituted society military actions need to be justified in front of a public. Different constitutions put different pressures on politicians for justifying military action, for instance, in countries such as Germany any mandate needs to pass parliament. Now the latest since the Yugoslavian civil war it has become an accepted argument that humanitarian emergencies justify military actions (and the considerable costs associated with them). Phrased otherwise, justifying the counter-piracy mission as humanitarian provides the opportunity to gain acceptance for the mission fairly easily. Who would object that providing food security to millions of people at relatively low costs is not a valuable objective? Moreover, embracing the humanitarian argument is a successful political strategy to prevent or encounter the public success of arguments claiming that the operation serves primarily geo-strategic ambitions or economic interests. As for many military action in the name of economic interest and geo-strategy is not acceptable, the success of such arguments would seriously question the public acceptance of the mission, Indeed, if a framing of the mission as a primarily economic one (“economic warfaring”) would become the dominant understanding, it is likely that military involvement would be reduced significantly.

The second reason has to do with the European security identity. Since its early days European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP) has been phrased in terms of humanitarian goals, such as the protection of civilians, or the emphasis on prevention and after-care. Although ESDP has certainly become more and more about hard power, the European security identity is still framed around the idea of a civilian power primarily concerned about norms and values and not geo-strategic ambitions. To frame ATALANTA as a humanitarian operation can hence be seen as an attempt to bring the operation in line with the European security identity.

Thirdly, if we consider the role of the maritime security industry which increasingly puts pressure on policymakers to do more against piracy (cp. e.g. the End Piracy Now campaign), the humanitarian argument is useful to lower the expectations of the maritime industry community. Arguing that ATALANTA is primarily a humanitarian mission is a useful tool for military staff and diplomats alike to argue why not more can be done to protect commercial vessels. Then the argument can be made that the mandate does not cover further actions, which is a more compelling argument than pointing to the lack of capabilities or the lack of political will do get more engaged.

Fourthly, embracing the humanitarian argumentation is a useful way of masking the relative failure of the counter-piracy mission. WFP vessels can be protected without considerable efforts. Hence this is an easy to reach objective. The operation can be presented as a success story. If, however, the significant containment (or even eradication) of piracy activity becomes the dominant criteria of success, the mission will have a hard time to claim success. Indeed while piracy activity has been reduced because of ATALANTA (it e.g. can be claimed that the overall naval presence has reduced the overall number of attacks by 50%), the operation has not succeeded to condemn piracy to an acceptable level. After all a total of 100 ships have been attacked in the first half of 2010, and at present 30 ships (Ecoterra) are held hostage.

The politics of humanitarian justification

As I have argued, if justified by the WFP argument, the claim that ATALANTA is primarily a humanitarian mission, is weak. The maritime industry as well as European publics should be well aware about the fact that ATALANTA is not a humanitarian mission and recognize that the argument serves strategic purposes. In how far one explicitly and publicly rejects the humanitarian argumentation however requires the following considerations: On the one side, rejecting the humanitarian argument will make more transparent that the reason for why not more is done to counter piracy is actually not the mandate, but the lack of political will and the lack of capacity and knowledge. A rejection will hence increase the pressure on politicians and strategists to do more against piracy. On the other side, the clearer it becomes for European publics that ATALANTA is not a humanitarian mission; the less the mission will be considered to be legitimate and acceptable. Openly rejecting the official justification will hence most likely lead to less public support and eventually even to withdrawal. The solution to this conundrum however lies in stressing the humanitarian argument that has received less attention so far. Namely, to move the fate of seafarers into the center of attention and to clarify that the operation in essence protects seafarers from a considerable threat. Seafarers lack a powerful representation or lobby group. However, it should be in everybody’s interest to strategically move the stories of seafarers into public attention. Without doubt it will be a hard sell to claim that European states should take military action to prevent a handful of Philippine crew members. Yet the overall number of 300.000 employees under constant threat could be useful to clarify what is at stake here. This will however mean for politicians to more openly admit that ATALANTA so far has not been a success story, and that more will need to be done to contain piracy.