Mitigating Children’s Involvement in Maritime Piracy - LawNow Magazine

Mitigating Children’s Involvement in Maritime Piracy

photo of sand dunes and open seaObservations by the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative



Recently, the Canadian Forces Maritime Warfare Centre (CFMWC) had the honour of hosting the prestigious Multilateral XII Wargame, an annual event that convenes representatives from eight of the western hemisphere’s most potent navies.  In the past, game scenarios have sought to replicate the catastrophic conditions that have accompanied real-world political or environmental events, such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.  However, among this year’s various problematics and injections, participants will be asked to simulate and discuss the burgeoning involvement of children in maritime piracy.

Until quite recently, the phenomenon of child maritime piracy elicited scant attention.  Precious few academic articles have been written on the subject – excepting three pieces by Danielle Fritz [1], Mark Drumbl [2] , and the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative [3] – and little has been done to create practical counter-piracy doctrine that affords consideration to threats posed by children. Indeed, children are prized by unscrupulous commanders (and presumably, by piratical gangs) for being agile, submissive, trustworthy, daring and largely impervious to legal prosecution. Yet according to the Seychellois Department of Legal Affairs, some ten to 20 percent of all pirates captured within the Indian Ocean have been below the age of 18 [4].  These youths present naval security actors with unique tactical and operational challenges that merit a distinct tactical and operational response.

Since 2012, the Dalhousie University-based Dallaire Initiative has been partnering with the Dalhousie Marine Piracy Project (DMPP) to explore the security implications of children’s involvement in maritime piracy; and while it is not yet capable of offering doctrinal recommendations, the Dallaire Initiative has managed to identify a number of key issues that demand further consideration by affected navies.

Children as a Security Concern

The Dallaire Initiative hypothesises that child pirates share a great deal in common with child soldiers, insofar as they are recruited to serve specific tactical and operational functions – functions that adults are ill-disposed to serve themselves.  Indeed, children are prized by unscrupulous commanders (and presumably, by piratical gangs) for being agile, submissive, trustworthy, daring and largely impervious to legal prosecution.

Moreover, as Dr. Shelly Whitman noted:

…the socio-economic factors (e.g. poverty, armed violence, lack of educational or employment opportunities, orphanhood, displacement and exposure to disease) that make children vulnerable for use by armed groups exists in each of the major areas where piracy is currently reported.  In addition, in many of the regions where piracy exists, children are being used by terrorist groups, criminal gangs and within state and non-state armed groups (e.g. in Somalia, Nigeria and Haiti).  Therefore, the use of children and youth by pirate groups could be viewed as a natural extension of these armed groups [3].

When they are deployed against a professional armed force, children also present adult security actors with a serious ethical dilemma – one that may result in fatal hesitation and/or subsequent post-traumatic stress.  Until quite recently, the phenomenon of child maritime piracy elicited scant attention. For instance, if a security actor were reluctant to return fire against a child – and said reluctance resulted in the death of a colleague – he or she might be blamed for the casualty.  On the other hand, if he or she were to return fire – thereby eliminating a child pirate or child soldier – they may return to base, only to be stigmatized as a child killer.

For these various reasons, if Western armies and navies are not afforded adequate doctrinal guidance and clear preparatory training on the subject of child soldiers and/or child criminals, they may well become increasingly loathe to participate in operations that involve children, thereby effectively ceding the strategic advantage to persons who use boys and girls for criminal or political purposes.  Obviously, this would be unacceptable.

Challenges Inherent to Engaging Children at Sea

Throughout 2013, the Dallaire Initiative began the exercise of crafting child pirate-specific rules of engagement (ROE) for naval security sector actors.  This work was accomplished with significant subject matter input from the CFMWC and was based upon the suite of ROE options put forth in the seminal Sanremo Handbook on Rules of Engagement.  At this time, the Dallaire Initiative also became a supporting entity of the maritime private security industry’s 100 Series Rules on the Use of Force (RUF), a “…model set and example of best practice RUF [that] complement current industry RUF guidance… as well as [that support] the requirements of ISO PAS 28007 as a Publicly Available Specification and international standard.”

This period of consultation and design culminated in a security sector roundtable, held at CFB Halifax (Stadacona) from 21-23 October 2013.  The event drew together some 20 naval personnel, private security contractors, civilian merchants, international lawyers and child protection experts, who were collectively tasked with assessing the Dallaire Initiative’s proposed ROE via a series of scenario exercises.

Ultimately, the roundtable precipitated a radical shift in the Dallaire Initiative’s understanding of naval interactions with children at sea. When they are deployed against a professional armed force, children also present adult security actors with a serious ethical dilemma – one that may result in fatal hesitation and/or subsequent post-traumatic stress. In particular, as participants worked through the Dallaire Initiative’s ROE, it became clear that it is both impractical and unadvisable to distinguish between adult pirates and child pirates in the heat of armed combat.  While land-based forces have the ability to assess threat according to the actions of individuals, sea-based forces are necessarily obliged to assess threat according to the behaviour of entire skiffs.  Whether children are present on any given skiff is nearly impossible to ascertain in advance – and in the absence of such critical intelligence, security sector actors cannot be expected to employ a competing set of child-specific ROE.

Furthermore, it was determined that although UNCLOS and a supporting collection of UN Security Council resolutions stipulate a clear legal responsibility to effect the immediate arrest of any pirate encountered at sea, state navies frequently (and according to some, necessarily) shunt this responsibility when pursuing an ambiguous or conflicting operational mandate.  For instance, roundtable participants expressed contrasting views as to whether apprehension and detention of alleged child pirates should be considered an integral component of counter-piracy operations.  Some believe that once a skiff has been neutralized, the counter-piracy mission has been accomplished, whether apprehension has taken place or not.

This lack of operational clarity – coupled with the fact that most warships are not built to effect the separation and accommodation of large numbers of adult and child pirates – has meant that many navies, including Canada’s, pursue an unofficial policy of “catching and releasing” suspected juveniles.  Yet this is precisely the kind of strategy that the Dallaire Initiative is striving to abolish; for if adult pirate commanders were to realize that navies routinely release children who are accused of piracy, they will opt to use children more often.  In this way, “catch and release” provides a direct incentive for children’s recruitment into piratical gangs.

Evidence of Child Maritime Piracy in the Indian Ocean

Near the end of the roundtable event, participants concluded that it would be more prudent for the Dallaire Initiative to shift its focus from the propagation of child-specific ROE to the creation of after-action standard operating procedure (SOP), particularly for the ethical apprehension, detention, interview and transfer of children at sea.  Indeed, it was universally affirmed that no such SOP currently exist, neither within the Canadian navy nor any international naval coalitions.

In pursuit of this new objective, the Dallaire Initiative decided that it first had to develop a better understanding of the status quo – that is to say, what navies are currently doing when faced with the challenge of apprehending child pirates.  This preliminary research prompted the Dallaire Initiative’s attendance at the November 2013 Counter-Piracy Week in Djibouti, as well as a four-week field mission to Kenya and the Seychelles, from February through March 2014.  Both “recce” missions yielded a significant amount of pertinent information.

Perhaps most importantly, these two research forays allowed the Dallaire Initiative to conclusively establish children’s participation in maritime piracy as an incontrovertible fact.  …adult pirates may choose to employ children because they are morally “pure”, thereby ensuring that their prayers for calm seas and successful operations pass directly to Allah. Indeed, as was mentioned previously, it was at this time that the Dallaire Initiative learned that some ten to 20 percent of all pirates captured in the Indian Ocean are below the age of 18.

As recounted by the Seychellois Department of Legal Affairs, the average size of a Somali pirate action group (PAG) is nine persons, though they may be comprised of as few as four persons and as many as 15.  Typically, one crew member aged 32+ will serve as captain, while members of the boarding party are usually between the ages of 18 and 30.  However, in almost all cases, one youth below the age of 18 will be employed to serve in a support capacity (e.g. as a cook or a cleaner).  On occasion – as in the notorious hijackings of the SV Quest, the FV Vega 5, the MV Semlow and the MV Maersk Alabama – this juvenile auxiliary will be made to participate in boarding party activities.  Said organizational structure was further corroborated by a group of some 20 Somali pirates who are currently incarcerated at the Seychelles’ Montagne Posée prison.

According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Nairobi, these youths are incorporated into piratical operations precisely because they are “nimble” and “expendable”.  Moreover, according to the Mombasa-based Seafarers’ Assistance Programme, adult pirates may choose to employ children because they are morally “pure”, thereby ensuring that their prayers for calm seas and successful operations pass directly to Allah.

Worryingly, the Dallaire Initiative found anecdotal evidence to suggest that juvenile pirates may also be thrown overboard after a successful take, so that their share of the spoils may be redistributed amongst their adult associates.

The Importance of SOP Specific to Child Pirates

While no one East African organization interviewed by the Dallaire Initiative was able to officially confirm that navies in the region are deliberately pursuing a strategy of catching and releasing juvenile pirates, many intimated that they’d heard stories to this effect.  In the absence of clear doctrinal prescriptions and/or sufficient space to detain large numbers (and different demographics) of pirates, this is not entirely incomprehensible.  However, as was mentioned previously, such a strategy may have the unintended consequence of incentivising children’s participation in maritime piracy.

If one were to therefore grant that navies have a strategic interest in apprehending and detaining pirates – irrespective of their age – one must then consider how such a detention would unfold.  First: where juveniles are concerned, navies would face the complicated task of physically separating child pirates from their adult associates.  This protocol – which has already been established as an international child protection norm on land – is necessary because of the dire physical and psychological risks that adult detainees may pose to children.  Indeed, even when a person is only suspected of being a child, they should be treated as such and separated.

Of course, such partition is fraught with challenges.  For example, in early 2014, when the Seychelles Police attempted to separate a 14-year-old Somali child pirate from his adult associates, the boy tried to commit suicide twice.  According to the Seychelles Police, the boy was terrified that his associates would think that he’d “snitched”.

Moreover, when children are being detained by guards who do not share their language, religion or culture (as is the case amongst Somali children detained in the Seychelles), said differences may aggravate their sense of isolation. …if adult pirate commanders were to realize that navies routinely release children who are accused of piracy, they will opt to use children more often.  This is why the Seychelles Prison Service has opted to incarcerate Somali children alongside Somali adults (a practice that it replicates amongst indigenous Seychellois juvenile offenders).

Nevertheless, even within these seemingly compelling circumstances, child pirates should be separated from adults.  While the impetus to mitigate a child’s sense of isolation or suicidal thoughts is entirely commendable, the solution lies in robust monitoring and the skilled provision of child-specific services – not in keeping children and adults together.

Second: once a suspected child pirate has been separated from their adult associates, navies must undertake an individual age assessment, so as to confirm as accurately as possible that said juvenile is indeed below the age of 18.  Navies already play a tremendously important role in this respect.  In the Seychelles, when an alleged pirate is being prosecuted, the age provided by the resident physician aboard the apprehending warship will determine whether he is tried as a minor or as an adult.

At present, the only age assessment technique employed by Western navies (and by most East African prison services) is medical examination.  However, whilst affording some veneer of precision, medical examinations – including, for example, dental and bone scans – are often highly inaccurate.  This is especially true in cases involving persons who are malnourished or diseased and whose bodies are therefore suffering from accelerated ageing.  Such is often the case amongst apprehended Somali pirates, many of whom may appear to be older than they actually are.

In light of the above, UNICEF has actually recommended that medical examination be the last of several techniques employed during an age assessment.  The assessor is first and foremost encouraged to conduct a psychosocial interview with the suspected child.  By asking questions that probe memories and associated inconsistencies, skilled child protection officers are able to estimate a person’s age within a narrow window of months or years.  Medical examinations should then be used only to corroborate what has been discovered during the interview.


The Dallaire Initiative has made great strides in its work on child maritime piracy, having both proven its existence as a widespread phenomenon (particularly in the Indian Ocean, though possibly in the Gulf of Guinea, the Straits of Malacca and other areas where youth and criminality have frequently intersected) and identified a number of related problems that demand further consideration by concerned navies.

Its preliminary recommendations on the subject of child maritime piracy are as follows:

1. In recognizing that children afford piratical gangs certain idiosyncratic tactical and operational advantages, naval doctrine must outline a child-specific tactical and operational response.  It appears that the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy has already made some headway in this respect, having drafted specific guidance for engaging (though not necessarily detaining) children at sea.  If a country’s navy does not currently offer such clear doctrinal instruction, the Royal Navy may serve as one possible model.

2. More specifically, navies must include apprehension and detention as integral, non-optional components of counter-piracy operations – especially when intelligence indicates that children may be present.  In the absence of such clarity, some may believe that once a purported pirate skiff has been neutralized, the counter-piracy mission has been accomplished.  This would effectively mean that possible juvenile crew are being surrendered to criminal elements – a move prohibited by international children’s rights law.

3. Warships deployed to participate in counter-piracy operations should be equipped with multiple detention facilities, so as to allow for the possible separation of child and adult detainees.  During the Dallaire Initiative’s visit to Kenya and the Seychelles, it became clear that certain navies – such as the French – have already begun to do so (see the Siroco, the Floréal and the Nivôse).  If a given navy were not in possession of such a warship, alternative procedures should be devised to preserve the spirit of what separation is intended to accomplish.

4. When a suspected child pirate is being subjected to age assessment aboard a naval warship, the first technique used should be the psychosocial interview.  Recognizing that most warships do not already have a designated child protection officer who is experienced in such exercises, navies should collaborate with international child protection organizations to have a particular “point person” trained in general child protection.  This person should also receive some context-specific training in the operating region’s culture and history.

This article was originally published in the Fall 2014 (Vol 10, No. 2) issue of Canadian Naval Review, and is reprinted with permission.


1. Danielle Fritz, (2012) “Child Pirates from Somalia: A Call for the International Community to Support the Further Development of Juvenile Justice Systems in Puntland and Somaliland,” Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, Vol. 44.

2. Mark Drumbl, (2013) “Child Pirates: Rehabilitation, Reintegration and Accountability,” Washington & Lee Legal Studies Paper No. 2013-16.

3. Dr. Shelly Whitman, (2012) “Children and Youth in Marine Piracy: Causes, Consequences and the Way Forward

4. Interview with Mr. Charles Brown (Senior State Counsel, Republic of Seychelles), March 2014.


Carl Conradi
Carl Conradi served as a programme officer at the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative, based at Dalhousie University. He managed all projects related to child maritime piracy and provided support to the Dallaire Initiative’s security sector training activities. Carl graduated with an MA in Conflict, Security and Development and King’s College London and has worked in Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Yemen.

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