Remembering the Seafarers on World Maritime Day 2011

The World Maritime Day is an event of considerable significance in the calendar of the seafaring states but somehow passes by virtually unnoticed within Pakistan. The International Maritime Organization (IMO), which is a specialized agency of the United Nations, is the moving spirit behind it’s observance. The IMO is celebrating it at it’s London Headquarters on Thursday 29 Sept 2011, while it’s 169 member states have been allowed the flexibility to do so anytime during the last week of September (26 to 30 Sept 2011).

The entry into force of the IMOs Convention in 1958 is a red letter day for the Organization and precisely 20 years later on 17 March, with the strength of it’s member states barely 21, the World Maritime Day was commemorated for the first time. Meant to recognise the international maritime industry’s mammoth contribution towards the global economy, the day also focuses on the importance of shipping safety, maritime security, marine environment and technical and legal matters. A particular aspect of IMOs work is also now being high-lighted each year. Last year’s theme revolved around the seafarer, the most basic of ingredients that makes world trade possible. Sometime around the middle of that year, a diplomatic conference at Manila which was deliberating upon major revisions to the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watch-keeping for Seafarers (the STCW Convention) and it’s associated code, gave official sanction to the idea to celebrate 25th June (the day these revisions were adopted) each year as the Day of the Seafarer.

We in Pakistan too need to recognise the services rendered by our seafarers, who mostly sail under foreign flags, to the cause of world trade and uplifting the global economy. These unsung heroes work in arduous conditions at sea, with very little time in harbour owing to the rapid turnaround times in most world ports. It is an accepted fact that a majority of world shipping is registered under flags of convenience, where regulatory standards are lax and where a lack of interest in the welfare of the ship and it’s crew is visible. Seafarers are thus not amply protected against excesses that they may be subjected to during routine operations. The trend of filing criminal charges against seafarers for political purposes and for causes beyond their control is an unhealthy one and grossly detrimental to the morale of this hardy workforce.

A far bigger threat confronting the international shipping industry is the increasing global shortage of seafarers, particularly the officer’s cadre, where the projected 2012 shortfall is of the order of 84000. Cognizant of this grave crisis, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), in association with the International Labour Organization (ILO), the International Transport Workers Federation (ITWF) and the premier shipping NGOs, has, since Nov 2008, been pursuing a ‘Go to Sea’ Campaign. This initiative is aimed at popularizing seafaring as a viable career choice. Our Government should likewise do it’s bit in upgrading our basic and periodical merchant marine training programs in order to generate interest amongst our vast reservoir of educated and unemployed individuals.

The most pressing threat being faced by the seafarers these days stems from piracy. The scale of the mayhem can be imagined from the fact that Somali pirates seized 49 vessels in 2010 alone, while capturing a record 1016 hostages. Eight crew members died, with 13 being wounded, up from 4 deaths and 10 wounded the previous year (2009). With the steep rise in the ransoms being demanded, crew members ie the pawns in the drama, are being detained for much longer to allow negotiations to succeed. Ships were held for an average of 55 days in 2009, while the last four ships released in end 2010 were detained for an average of 150 days. It took more than 10 months for the release of the MV Suez crew to materialize. Some seafarers are still known to be languishing in captivity for over a year.

Seen in this context, the theme selected for WMD 2011 appears to be the most appropriate, namely “Piracy – Orchestrating the Response”. Despite the fact that the challenges posed by piracy have been amply recognized, the global response has been patchy and the international will to uproot this menace less-than-apparent. The UN as a body has unanimously passed a number of Security Council resolutions meant to facilitate states in the capture and even the prosecution of pirates. The adoption of the Djibouti Code of Conduct on 29 January 2009 furnished the regional states with a greater stake and a higher profile in the fight against piracy. The Djibouti Code of Conduct Project Implementation Unit, established subsequently by the IMO in April 2010, has made significant progress in equipping the three regional counter-piracy information centres in Dar es Salaam, Mombasa and Sana’a. Pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 1851, a voluntary Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS) was also created on 14 January 2009 with the primary purpose of coordinating political, military, legal and public information efforts devoted to the eradication of piracy.

On the high seas in the Gulf of Aden and off the eastern coast of Africa, the presence of upto 40 warships engaged in counter-piracy operations is noticeable. The US Navy and US Coast Guard support and contribute to the Combined Maritime Task Force 151 (in which the Pakistan Navy is also an active participant), while NATO and EU Naval Forces are engaged in Operation Ocean Shield and Operation Atalanta respectively. Warships of more than a dozen other countries, primarily looking after their own state interests, can also be seen. Individual merchant ships traversing the danger areas, whose radius keeps expanding owing to the widespread use of motherships by the pirates, are also now increasingly conscious of the level of the threat posed. They are now more or less taking rudimentary tactical precautions like following the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC) through the Gulf of Aden, re-routing where called for, switching off the shipborne Automatic Identification System (AIS) in high threat areas, resorting to evasive rudder steering when required and use of bright searchlights at night. Merchant vessels were initially averse to the deployment of armed guards on board, but are much more amenable to the idea now. They have likewise enhanced the use of non-lethal passive countermeasures as a deterrence.

IMO has in fact prepared a consolidated Action Plan, aimed at eradicating piracy through a well-coordinated broad-based global response, which addresses the following major objectives:

a. Securing immediate release of all the hostages in captivity. This may seem like a tall order as hardly any government is in a position to exert any influence over the pirates. The plight of the captives is however too intense to be ignored. Greater interaction at the political level is needed to forge a common front dedicated to bringing some semblance of order and governance in the virtually autonomous regions where piracy thrives. The collective conscience of the world needs likewise to be awakened to the hardship the hostages are increasingly being subjected to.

b. Providing guidance to the industry. IMO keeps issuing guidelines to ships and to their administrators for the use of basic preventive and defensive measures in a bid to deter and thwart acts of piracy. The guidelines need to be periodically reviewed if it tends to needlessly provoke the pirates into retaliatory acts of violence.

c. Seeking greater naval support. Though a large number of warships are engaged in anti-piracy operations, their strength is still insufficient vis-à-vis the ever-expanding area that the reach of the pirates is extending to. Apart from individual warships of countries looking after their national interests, naval forces in the region are operating under the umbrella of the maritime coalition, NATO and the EU. Naval support would become more convenient to seek if all such forces act with greater cohesion.

d. Promoting anti-piracy cooperation. Risks can be reduced through better information sharing and civil-military coordination. This cooperation can be at three different levels – among states, regions and organizations. Regional initiatives are serving a useful purpose.

e. Building capacity to deter, capture and prosecute. All maritime states with sufficient will and resolve need to be suitably assisted for enhancing their maritime capacities, thereby enabling them to exert a positive influence in ensuring the safety and security of life at sea.

f. Providing care to affected seafarers and their families. Humanitarian organizations engaged in extending succour to the hostages need to be encouraged and supported. All efforts should be devoted towards easing the hardships of the seafarers in captivity and for regular counselling of their families who constantly remain on tenterhooks during the prolonged periods that their loved one’s fate remains in doubt.

The problem with piracy is that it picks up steam as it chugs along. Each time a huge amount of money floods into the pirate-infested zone in the form of the ever-increasing ransom payments, the piratical enterprise gets a boost and recruits to it’s cause swell. The answer, some say, obviously lies in outlawing ransom payments. Easier said than done! Thousands of innocent hostages may have to pay the ultimate price before the pirates soak in the lesson. Can the world afford that? The long-term solution lies in investing in the future of the youth of the lawless Somali autonomous regions by supporting the setting up of a requisite organizational infrastructure that generates better governance and upholds the rule of law.

Pakistan is playing a positive role by regularly contributing a warship to the Combined Task Force which is dedicated for anti-piracy operations. It’s efforts have been recognized by making it a member of the UN Contact Group on piracy and periodically entrusting the Pakistan Navy with the overall command of Task Force 151, with PN being the only regional navy to be so honoured. We need to, however, expand our influence in the political arena also by taking greater interest in on-going developments. On the local front, we need to initiate the process of including sea piracy as a cognizable offence in our penal code so that in case any pirate is captured by a PN warship, we are not caught on the wrong foot.

Above all, in the context of the World Maritime Day, being celebrated for the past thirty three years, Pakistan needs to recognize the significance of maritime activities and it’s economic dividends. The world maritime day should thus not only be noticed but celebrated with full fervour and the event used to generate awareness of the maritime domain, a vast, though largely untapped, national resource.

Note: This article was published in the 30 September 2011 issue of the daily newspaper ‘Pakistan Observer’ under the heading’ World Maritime Day 2011’ and in the 02 October 2011 issue of the daily newspaper ‘Pakistan Today’ under the heading ‘Pakistan needs to recognise services of it’s seafarers’. It was also published in the November 2011 issue of the ‘Navy News’.

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