Piracy – Aura, Reality and Response

It is indeed befitting that the International Maritime Organization has chosen ‘Piracy: Orchestrating the Response’ as it’s theme for this year’s World Maritime Day. For the past six or seven years, piracy stemming from Somalia is increasingly assuming menacing proportions. Before Somalian piracy appeared on the international radar, hotspots like the Malacca Strait, South China Sea and the west coast of Africa off Nigeria were much better known for this type of activity. So predominant the Somalian – inspired threat is these days can be gauged from official statistics which indicate that out of the 1181 hostages seized by pirates in 2010, a record 1016 were captured by the Somali pirates alone. Pirate attacks in the region have likewise shown more than a sevenfold increase since 2005, while ransom payments have registered an unimaginable 36-fold increase during the same period, now averaging $ 5.4 M a ship.

Piracy has always existed in parallel with ships plying the seas for trade. While a group of nations used ships for legitimate commerce, others found a simpler way of raking in greater sums of money through capturing their cargoes and ransoming their crews. Even a man as illustrious as Julius Caesar could not escape their grip. It is another story that after scoffing at his Clinician captors for the meagre ransom that they were asking for and after having secured his release through payment of much more than being demanded, he made sure that each and every one of his kidnappers was captured and crucified. For the Vikings of Scandinavia, who raided (mainly between 793 to 1066) the coasts and inland cities of all western Europe as far down south as Italy and even North Africa, piracy was a full time, though seasonal, vocation.

Another phenomenon which gave a considerable boost to piracy was official patronage through issuance of Lettres de Marque authorizing the capture of merchant ships belonging to an enemy nation. Pirates who stayed within the bounds of their commission became known as privateers. While enjoying the legal protection of the states that commissioned their services, they became legitimate targets for those nations whose ships they were targeting. Sweden, during it’s three year war (1389-92) with Denmark, sought the assistance of the freebooting Victual Brothers. The appointment of Khair-ud-din Barbarossa aka Redbeard as Admiral-in-Chief of the Ottoman empire by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in 1533 helped Turkey in becoming the predominant naval power in the eastern Mediterranean for 33 years. Queen Elizabeth’s patronage of Sir Francis Drake, amongst others, helped Britain in challenging the might of Spain in the western Atlantic. During the American War of independence, the colonies relied extensively on the privateers to even the odds against Britain by virtually crippling it’s trade.

Flamboyant pirates like Sir Henry Morgan, William Kidd, Edward Teach aka Blackbeard and Robert Surcouf, who were all privateers at one stage or another, lived pretty colourful and exciting lives which became the stuff of legends. The Stevenson classic Treasure Island and movies like the Pirates of the Caribbean series have tended to bestow an aura of romanticism on the pirates, though in reality they have merely been a bloodthirsty and ruthless lot.

Modern-day piracy is more brisk and business-like. Piracy off Somalia owes it’s origin to the chaos resulting from the ouster of the Siad Barre regime. While clans in the south of the country fought over the right to control Mogadishu and it’s basic revenue sources, the virtually autonomous regions of Somaliland and Puntland to the north endeavoured to exert control over its territorial waters. Taking advantage of the prevailing confusion and the lack of a central governing authority, foreign fishing vessels homed in on these waters, so rich in lobsters, sharks, tuna and mackerel. The local fishermen initially focussed their attention on countering these illegal fishing activities and seeking compensation for lost revenues. The forced issuance of so-called licenses by the clan leaders also became a big racket.

As a reaction against these acts of poaching by armed fishermen and the well-documented dumping of toxic wastes, ostensibly by western crime syndicates, the local fishermen increasingly turned to piracy to get even. They felt that they had no option left after even the UN turned a deaf ear to their constant pleas against such illegal activities. As per a UN agency estimate, around 700 foreign fishing vessels were known to be operating in Somali waters by 2005, many employing illegal and destructive fishing methods. European companies also found it to be very convenient and profitable to dispose off their toxic wastes here, which cost them as little as $2.50 a tonne, when by comparison disposal costs in Europe amounted to nearly $1000 a tonne. Peter Lehr of St Andrews University thus termed this situation a “resource swap” with Somalis raking in $100 M annually in ransoms while foreigners poached $300 million in fish. If we add the costs alone, let alone the consequences, of the illegal toxic dumping bit, one can realise how uneven the equation was.

International attention was however only drawn towards Somalian Piracy on the hijacking of a Ukrainian freighter MV Faina transporting 33 T-72 tanks and associated equipment to Kenya (on paper at least) on 25 September 2008. Since then, it has been more of a cat-and-mouse game between the pirates and the international maritime community. When ships were directed to stay away from the Somali coast, the pirates likewise kept increasing their range, through the employment of hijacked vessels as ‘motherships’ to increase the targeting range of the pirates’ skiffs. When an Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC), backed up by a naval escort force, was promulgated in the Gulf of Aden, the pirates shifted the bulk of their activities to the more open Indian Ocean. When the pirates started being targetted by the naval forces in the region, they began hardening their stance towards the hostages. Resultantly, out of the 3500 seafarers taken hostage during the past 4 years, 62 of them have died through deliberate murder, by drowning, from malnutrition and disease, heart failure or even suicide through despondency.

The death of a Pakistani master mariner Capt Jafar Jafri during a botched rescue attempt and the ten – month long captivity of another Pakistani Captain along with three crew members of MV Suez brought this spectre closer to home. People started questioning as to why a handful of brigands couldn’t be controlled by the world’s naval might. Granted that nearly 40 warships of over 25 countries are presently employed in the region in counter-piracy operations, the fact remains that the pirates, increasingly better armed and equipped through multi-million dollar ransoms, are constantly increasing their radius of operations. They have even ventured deep into the EEZ, with more than hundred of their number now in Indian hands.

Pakistan, with it’s limited resources, is committed to the anti-piracy cause. The Pakistan Navy has, since the formation of a dedicated Combined Task Force (CTF151) on 8 January 2009, been actively participating in it’s operations. It has in fact periodically undertaken eight deployments so far. It’s efforts have been recognized by entrusting it with the command of the said Task Force for a four- month period in December 2010. Pakistan likewise has also been made a member of the UN Contact Group on piracy last year. Pirate attacks on PNSC vessels have been averted through close coordination and vigilance.

The Pakistan Navy’s role in the events following the release of MV Suez and its crew is worth recounting. PNS Babur was immediately directed to provide the much-needed fuel, water, provisions and medical support and escort it throughout as part of Operation Umeed-e-Nau. In the process, it managed to keep an Indian destroyer Godavari at bay and prevent it from needlessly butting in. Shortly thereafter, MV Suez had to be abandoned and it’s crew evacuated to PNS BABUR and thereafter to another PN destroyer Zulfiquar for the return journey to Pakistan. PNS Zulfiquar’s dramatic entry in it’s homeport, being telecast live, was indeed a sight to behold.

Unpleasant thoughts about pirates and piracy and the crew’s prolonged ordeal, however, kept lurking beneath the placid surface. Much before piracy lost it’s official legitimacy through the adoption of the Paris Declaration on maritime rights in 1856, the British had declared the pirates ‘hostis humani generis’ – enemies of all mankind, who by law, could be hunted without mercy and hanged on sight. This principle got enshrined in the customary international law of the nineteenth century as it evolved over the years. The UN Conference on Law of the Sea, while codifying such laws, drew a distinction between piracy on the high seas, which came under universal jurisdiction, and pirate-type acts within territorial waters, which fell under the jurisdiction of coastal states. UNCLOS Art 105 provides that “every state may seize a pirate ship on the high seas” but insists that the prosecution should be by“ the courts of the state which carried out the seizure.” Though some prosecutions have indeed occurred in the US, Netherlands, France Denmark, Spain, South Korea, Malaysia etc, they are relatively rare, with almost 90% of the captured pirates being released quietly because of cost and legal and human rights concerns. US and UK have picked an easier way: they have signed agreements with Kenya (16 January 2009) for facilitating the detention and trial of the suspected pirates in the Kenyan criminal courts. Since Somalia is in no position to assume control over it’s own territorial waters, the UN Security Council has, through successive resolutions, permitted the use of necessary anti-piracy measures in Somali Waters as well as on land.

All that the international maritime community is doing so far is to contain the fall-out of the piracy phenomenon. In order to foster a more lasting solution, four steps are necessary. One is the establishment of an International Piracy Tribunal in the region in which justice can be promptly and uniformly dispensed. Secondly, outlawing the illegal toxic waste dumping and poaching activities in Somalia’s EEZ, which will enable the local fishing industry to flourish and furnish an alternate source of livelihood. Thirdly, assisting the autonomous regions of Somaliland, Puntland and Mudug in setting up sound governance structures to assume their own security responsibilities. And lastly, launching a severe crackdown on the pirate financiers-cum-kingpins by tracking the ransom money trail and making piracy a zero-sum game for those involved. This can be done and all it requires is international will and cohesion. The current World Maritime Day theme may set the pace for what may well become the beginning of the end of piracy in the region.

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