Home' Ships and Shipping : March 2011 Contents Gloom over pirate progress
Thoughts from the distinguished maritime commentator Michael Grey MBE.
Might 2011 be the year in which we see some real action over
the plague of Somali pirates, with the International Maritime
Organisation providing a platform for the UN Secretary-General
Ban Ki-Moon this month to launch new initiatives? Seafarers
who bear the brunt of the pirates' increased aggression will hope
for the best, but probably won't hold their breath.
Presumably beginning the year as they hope to go on, the pirates'
tally of 750 seafarers held hostage, with their anchorages on the
Somali coast crowded with 33 ships, was not a brilliant end to
January, nor a good start to the prospects of a safe passage across the
Indian Ocean. Now ranging freely over the western Indian Ocean
and employing at least five captured merchant ships as floating
bases to launch their attacks, the pirates give every impression of
being fast learners.
While there have been successful defences employing citadels in
which the crew have remained secure until military aid arrived,
there have been at least two worrying incidents in which the pirates
have managed to penetrate the ships' secure zones, and an upsurge
of violence against captured crews, with fatalities. And while there
was some muted satisfaction at the success of the South Korean navy
team which stormed a captured ship and killed eight pirates, there is
apprehension at the reaction of the pirates to a more hard line being
taken against them.
Despite "official" disapproval of arms being borne aboard
merchant ships, there is no doubt that opinion on this front is
changing, and armed guards are being increasingly seen aboard
vulnerable ships. And while the arguments against armed
merchant ships -- the risk of escalation -- the problems in wayports
-- the liabilities if people are hurt in a firefight, etc. -- are still heard,
there is the distinct sense that more and more companies are
willing to bite the bullet (an unfortunate aphorism) and quietly
pay for armed protection.
It is interesting to see that letters to professional marine journals
and comments by serving seafarers increasingly make the point that
they resent going to sea unprotected, and not being trusted with the
firearms which they believe would make the difference and force
any pirates to sheer off. There is less apparent support for the view
which prevailed a couple of years ago that it was not the job of
merchant seafarers ever to handle firearms and that this was the sole
role of the armed forces.
The widening of the area at risk from the coastal waters of
Somalia to a vastness which extends across the Arabian Sea almost as
far as the Indian coast, well south of the Equator with attacks
reported far east of the Seychelles and the Chagos Archipelago, has
driven this more pragmatic attitude to self defence. While the "Best
Management Practice" developed to encourage ships to liaise closely
with naval forces in the Gulf of Aden and the passages around the
Arabian Peninsula, has been effective, the pirates have ranged
increasingly deep into the Indian Ocean in search of their prey.
Here, the presence of a warship or even a military aircraft will be
fortuitous and in the depths of the sea, the pirates have longer to
consolidate their hold on a ship after boarding.
But what mariners find very depressing is the fact that the
mainstream media now almost completely ignores the attacks. Just
occasionally, as when a couple of pirate skiffs menaced a cruise
ship on passage, does piracy penetrate this wall of seemingly
uncaring ignorance. But the tales of brave passengers resuming
their dinner after the danger has passed did not make any link to
the grim statistic that on that very day, the number of seafarers
held hostage went above 700, for the first time. The perception
that governments don't really care that much about seafarers and
their ordeal at the hands of the pirates also gives legs to the notion
that, put bluntly, seafarers are responsible for their own defence.
The occasional admiral or political figure making such a remark
adds to the sense of unease.
The situation is unlikely to be greatly assisted by the current
political upheavals which are taking place across the Middle East.
Piracy, which governments have been careful to distinguish from
terrorism (perhaps because it is only seafarers who have been
terrorised), may well be further displaced from its position among
the priorities of diplomats and foreign services, as they grapple with
the current political uncertainties in the region.
A cynic might suggest that the unwillingness to use
overwhelming force against the pirate strongholds, or even to do
something to interrupt the distribution of ransom payments to the
pirate "controllers", demonstrates a sort of level of tolerance, rather
like the police "tolerating" a certain level of street crime in an inner
city. And that too contributes to the hardening of attitudes afloat. As
social commentators have noted, the "fear of crime" is usually more
potent than the level of crime itself, and the fear of piracy is now
something that really is entrenched among merchant mariners, even
though statistical risks of a successful attack remain small.
Whatever the IMO and the Secretary-General of the UN can
develop in their upcoming "action plan" providing a "broader,
global response", it will have to be speedy and decisive, if there is to
be any hope of reversing the trend of attacks, and the growing
number of hostages. Seafarers don't want to pack guns, but is there
March 2011 SHIPS AND SHIPPING
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