Managing the problem of Marine Piracy

Seeing the collective might and wisdom of the so-called international community floundering before a rag-tag group of Somali pirates, one can be forgiven for being pessimistic as to the ultimate outcome of this apparently unequal contest. It is true that at the moment we are grappling with the gentler issue of managing the problem, rather than focussing on a permanent solution. Broadly speaking, the problem can and is being managed in a number of ways: by defanging the pirates, by increasing the ship’s own protective measures and by ensuring that all captured pirates are successfully prosecuted, which can be expected to hopefully serve as a deterrent.

But all these, some may correctly argue, have nothing to do with assuaging the miseries of the prospective victims, which should form our primary focus. Granted; but it still stands to reason that one of the surest ways of accomplishing this is by containing it’s primary cause, the element of piracy itself.

To be fair, these countermeasures are indeed a regular, on-going feature, though with varying degrees of success. Around 5000 pirates have been captured so far, with many of their weapons and skiffs destroyed. With so much to gain and having gained much, there is apparently no dearth of manpower and equipment, as far as the pirates are concerned.

Most shipowners, which were hitherto quite wary of employing armed guards are quite receptive now. Such guards have indeed managed to thwart almost all the attacks attempted against the vessels on which they were borne. Though the IMOs Maritime Safety Committee has issued interim guidelines on the employment of privately – contracted armed security personnel on board ships transiting high risk piracy areas, problems still remain. We’ve seen that a British security company has recently had a number of it’s operatives arrested in Eritrea for bringing weapons into that country. A number of ship masters have likewise been arrested in South Africa for having arms on board their vessels and not having complied with the correct reporting mechanism. With Egypt also coming out with it’s own restrictive instructions for arms – carrying merchantmen, it is true that most ports strongly discourage the presence of arms on board merchant ships. Besides, it’s only a matter of time before some serious mishap occurs, like the killing of unarmed Indian fishermen by armed guards on board a transiting Italian ship on the suspicion of being pirates. It won’t be long either before the pirates devise and unleash some more lethal measures to neutralise the guards. Time will tell whether in the long run it would have been better to stick with intelligence and awareness-led protection as well as non-lethal self protective measures like evading pirates through the use of citadels, blinding them with light, drenching them with water canons, stopping them with razor wire or deafening them with sound blasts.

As far as action against the captured pirates is concerned, around 800 of them have been prosecuted so far, with almost all of them languishing in prisons in Kenya, Seychelles, Somaliland and Puntland. It is another story that for every pirate captured, more than five times that number have been captured and released. In one well-publicized case almost an year back, a British warship HMS Cornwall released 17 pirates found on board a hijacked mothership, with 5 hostages on board, claiming that it did not have legal grounds to detain them.

Anti – piracy measures have by far been reactive in nature, with a lack of coordination being it’s most defining feature. Warships of around 25 countries are engaged in anti-piracy patrols with most of them, including groups like the US-sponsored CTF 151, NATOs Operation Ocean Shield and EUs Operation Atalanta, all looking after their own specific interests, other actions being incidental. UN, IMO and IMBs role as catalysts and facilitators must however be lauded.

The steps being taken are obviously not effective enough, as during the past four years, 62 seafarers have died at the hands of the Somali pirates with 3500 being kidnapped and held hostage. Such personal tragedies were brought closer to home through an emotional campaign waged by the young daughter of the Pakistani skipper of an Egyptian – owned vessel, whose captors were threatening to kill him along with the 21 other kidnapped crew members if the demanded ransom was not paid. Although the MV Suez crewmembers were eventually released after more than 10 months of captivity, others have not been that lucky. The problem mostly centres around vessels flying flags- of-convenience whose owners, having claimed insurance, show reluctance in owning up to their civic responsibilities. The case of two students of Bahria University, whose seafaring father has been languishing in captivity for nearly fifteen months now, is heart-rending. The lives of such families, even if the release of their breadwinners comes about, are invariably scarred forever.

Now that the international community is aware of the scale and immensity of the problem, it is important to close ranks to address the problem with the intellectual intensity that it deserves. We have in the recent past witnessed some international initiatives, which taken to it’s logical conclusion would yield the desired dividends. The Djibouti Code of Conduct, which offers regional countries a major stake in the enterprise, is one such undertaking, though it needs to be constantly prodded. It’s Project Implementation Unit, established by IMO in April 2010, has adequately equipped three regional counterpiracy information sharing centres.

The full thrust of the international anti-piracy efforts has till recently been directed against the scores of unemployed young men hijacking ships at sea. It has now sunk in that this criminal enterprise is actually being controlled by only a handful of organizers who fund it and benefit extensively from it. A multi-national task force is now focussing it’s energy towards targeting such financiers as well as the shady negotiators involved in the business. Rather belatedly, but nevertheless correctly, it intends to zoom in on them by tracing the path of ransom money after it is paid.

The most important point that always comes across is the need for political stability. The transitional government that was installed with the help of African peacekeepers has lost it’s credibility through excessive corruption. It needs to be replaced by a representative government which ensures an adequate level of autonomy for it’s various clans. It also needs to be recognized that the regions where most piracy ventures originate from are virtually autonomous. One of them, Somaliland has even had an election in 2010. These regions should be bolstered through international help to generate alternate sources of livelihood for their people and develop the ability to restrain piracy on their own.

One of the frequently cited root cause of piracy, to which sufficient international attention has not been devoted, pertains to poaching and radioactive waste dumping in Somali waters. The contours of any long-lasting solution should not ignore this vital aspect.

Most importantly, what we should primarily aim at is the setting-up of an institutionalized welfare system dedicated towards mitigating the plight of the hostages and their families in every possible manner. In cases like the MV Suez, for example, where the captured vessel is flying a flag-of-convenience, and the crew constitutes a number of nationalities, someone or some organization should be prepared and equipped to represent them and endeavour to seek their release and provide succour to their families. The bottomline is that victims of piracy and their dependants should never feel abandoned at any cost.

Let me however end on an optimistic note. We keep hearing about the solution of piracy being on land; there is a new development on that front. As revealed by Lloyd’s List prior to the recently – concluded London Conference on Somalia, a number of countries are funding a drive to have anti-piracy forces in Somaliland, Puntland and TFG-controlled areas trained and equipped through private security agencies. So some hope may be around the corner.

It has been accurately said that ‘the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’. And believe me, there are sufficient good men doing something about the menace that continues to plague us.

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