May 012008

Earlier this week the US and France introduce a draft UN Security Council resolution co-sponsored by the UK and Panama, to combat piracy along Somalia’s nearly 2,000 mile coastline. Is it enough?

Faster than you can say “dead man’s chest” Somali pirates bounced back like Chuckie. As a dozen of their number, having snatched the yacht, Le Ponant, faced three square meals a day awaiting the pleasure of a Paris court after their capture by French forces, what’s generically referred to as the Somali Marines hijacked the Panamanian-flagged Fiesty Gas, seized a Spanish tuna boat, Playa de Bakio, shot-up a Japanese tanker, Takayama and attacked a South Korean bulk carrier Not to be outdone, their south east Asian brothers boarded and robbed the Thai-flagged Pataravarin 2 in the second attack in Malaysian waters since January.

A bright spot is the imprisonment for life of 11 pirates by a court in Puntland. Seven of the men were pirate, four others had collaborated in the seizing of a ship from the United Arab Emirates. Puntland, a breakaway region of Somalia, a nation that ceased to function after the overthrow of a dictatorial regime 17 years ago, is widely regarded as a sort of seed for a storm of stability to sweep that sad landmass that has so far failed to germinate.

Despite the presence of naval forces from the US and Europe representing massive firepower and military technology, victories have been few and ineffective off the Somali coast. Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia have been more successful in reducing piracy but these nations do have a stable existence that Somalia lacks.

When discussing the possible advantages of large military presence one should bear in mind the fate of the general cargo ship Sanford, taken in the late 1980s from Subic Bay in the Philippines. At the time, Subic Bay was the largest US overseas military installation in the world, which didn’t faze the pirates one iota, any more than it has prevented pirate attacks in the warship-rich waters of Iraq.

The vessel’s name was, in fact, welded into the hull. The pirates crudely painted “Star Ace” over the name and the vessel, through various fortunes ended up in the port of San Fernando, La Union. The original name was clearly permanent and visible when I visited her in 1990, but apparently invisible to the relevant law enforcement agencies and authorities, so the requirement to emboss IMO numbers on ships’ hulls may not be quite as helpful as some would suppose.

Piracy is big business, some estimates put the cost at $16bn a year. It’s deadly, too, over a 10 year period, 1995 to 2005, some 340 crewmembers and passengers were killed and 461 injured.

One must be cautious about figures for piracy. In the past, and probably now, it has been severely under-reported in part because ship companies fear increased insurance premiums, embarrassment and because they don’t want vessels tied up in a port while the crews are being questioned at length by police authorities and demands for favours by those supposedly investigating the incident. It’s little wonder that one commentator refers to it as “the industry’s dirty little secret”. Regular reports by the International Maritime Bureau may be little more than the tip of a rather large iceberg.

Somali pirate efforts are harder to hide when kidnap for ransom is involved on an international scale.

Of course, the ISPS code should have made life safer but, as the British House of Commons Transport committee noted: “the code has not contributed to the safety of seafarers… The primary impetus behind the introduction of the Code was the concern that ships are a potential vehicle for weapons and terrorists. In other words, those ships—and their crews—are the threat. This is clearly seen in the US where in many ports seafarers are prevented from leaving their ships. Thus the focus is not on the protection of the seafarer but on the protection of the country to which the ship will visit.”

In fact, the widely promoted links between between terrorism and piracy are doing little to secure safety for seafarers, their ships, or international trade routes, yet if the issue of safety frompiracy of seafarers, ships and trade routes is addressed then the threat of piracy-related terrorism goes away. If it is not addressed, then the welcome mat remains out for terrorists.

It’s hard to disagree with that report’s statement “The UK Government and the international community generally, ought to be ashamed that they have failed to put effective measures in place to prevent the present high level of piratical attacks on seamen and women.”

In fact, much of the international legal framework to pursue and engage pirates has been in place for centuries. They come under the category hostis humani generis, enemies of humanity. Under the principle of Jus Cogens, or compelling law, all nations are obligated to eliminate pirates.

Even with the agreement of whatever passes for a sovereign authority in Somalia for other countries to pursue pirates in Somali pirates, there really has yet to be an effective answer.

One long-term answer is to tackle the warlords who benefit from piracy, as we have mentioned before.

The question remains how one engages the pirates with technology they can see far enough away to skedaddle before the warship gets close.

Although not as uncommon as widely supposed, the arming of seafarers is, for the most part, not a wise move. One only has to read through maritime casualty reports to realise that such a cure is likely to be more dangerous than the disease.

Part of the answer might be the revival of the World War 2 Q-ship. These were well-armed ships disguised as merchant vessels inviting enough to attract the attention of an enemy, where upon the Q-ship would reveal it true nature by attacking the enemy vessel. They were a new concept, even then, by a good two years.

Such a solution would be relatively cheap to implement. Operating several such small to medium sized bait would cost a lot less than the super-duper-built-for-a-war-that-never-happened vessels presently assigned to the task. Military personnel would be more usefully employed this way than, say, by shooting-up cigarette vendors in the Suez Canal.

The rules of engagement would simply be to sink or capture the pirates.

Perhaps we should spell the doom of the pirates with a Q.

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