January 05, 2012

The anti-piracy bandwagon: conveniently blind

The reactions of the pillars of the international shipping community, as they grandiloquently like to call themselves, have been even more surreal in the last few months as the number of successful Somali pirate attacks have dwindled. Those of us who have been following, with some interest, the moral turpitude that has become the hallmark of a bunch of people who have got used to being paid for just standing around and talking about piracy- all the while actually doing nothing even remotely useful will not be surprised at this turn of events. Their imperative remains the same as it was when piracy was taking off- use every avenue to milk the gravy train of piracy. Use every trick in the book to peddle influence or assumed expertise. Use every sucker at your disposal to cling on- and suck the blood- of the besieged host. And if all else fails, discuss the issue to death.

Any half sober sailor will tell you that the main reason pirates are being unsuccessful in hijacking ships in the Indian Ocean today is because of the armed guards that more and more shipowners are deploying abroad their fleets. Sure, there are other reasons- the covert Western air and drone strikes on Al Shabaab targets in southern Somalia and the Kenyan and Ethiopian coordinated attacks on the Shabaab are two. Kenyan forces have gone hundreds of miles into Somali territory, disrupting Shabaab lines- and, presumably, their logistical and other links with pirates in and around the important port city of Kismayo. Ethiopia- and now Djibouti- have joined the African soldiers that have, with American backing, propped up the transitional government for long. American drones and unidentified aircraft (US? French? Kenyan?) are bombing Shabaab stronghold villages well inside Somali territory. All this is said to have panicked some pirates somewhat- and resulted in a fire sale of ransoms for hostage ships two months ago. 

Anybody with half a brain will tell you all this, but the IMO will not, and neither will the coalition navies or the IMB, for doing so will raise some existential questions about many organisations, not to speak of questions related to their integrity. These organisations- and those hostage negotiators, insurance and reinsurance companies and assorted experts hanging on to the teats of the anti-piracy bandwagon for dear life- are still on their old trip. They continue to flog the dead horse of BMPs, citadels and coalition warships as the cause of the reduction in piracy. And when the music gets too strained and the story wears too thin, they hold a seminar- as they did recently- at the end of which they tell us that 'the industry is in two minds about the effectiveness of citadels'.  Can there be any statement more inane? Do we need an international junket of talking heads to reach these dizzying peaks of banality?

The rest of the bandwagon is alive and kicking too, by the way. Governments continue to make appropriate noises about protecting seafarers, even as pirates sporadically single out mariners by nationality and take them ashore while releasing their ships (Shockingly, the Asphalt Venture's Indian crew continues to be held in Somalia, and now four South Koreans, including the Master, have been similarly kept back after the tanker 'Gemini' was released post ransom. Payback for the earlier Korean operation against the pirates on the hijacked 'Samho Jewellery', we are told. The industry is playing this down with everything at its disposal). 

Governments may mouth platitudes, but are predictably schizoid when it comes to backing words with action. Despite loud claims saying that it will do everything to protect seafarers against piracy, and despite making appropriate noises about putting armed guards on its own merchant ships, the Indian government nonetheless detained the bulk carrier Genco Provence in Gujarat two weeks ago. The ship was carrying two Irish guards, four SLRs and some live cartridges, all of which had apparently been declared to the authorities, but it did not matter; the ship was held anyway. Maybe the Indian government thought they were planning an invasion of Gujarat. Governments in Egypt and South Africa have been similarly- some say deliberately- short sighted and stubborn when it comes to ships carrying arms to protect themselves. 

Despite clear evidence to the contrary, every interested party- from the IMO down to the mainly Western think-tanks that have mushroomed like toadstools every since piracy began to be a problem- continue to push old failed tactics as solutions. Some of these organisations have come to India too. These setups seem to sprout only to serve the personal needs of retired naval officers and other assorted out-of-touch functionaries that they are staffed with in the country; much like most of the others clinging to the teats of the anti-piracy bandwagon, they have nothing to do with either finding solutions to piracy, helping victim seafarers or seeking the truth. 

Instead of building on the only tactic that has worked- armed guards- the parasites that shipping is plagued with will beat around the bush, obfuscating issues, diluting effective responses and refusing to build upon the embarrassingly few successes that we have had over the years. Shipping should be using the present  circumstances- the welcome lull in successful hijacks- to push aggressively for permanent solutions to piracy, whether on land or in the water. It should be engaging with governments, realising that there are collateral advantages for the industry to the Western and African military intervention in Somalia and to the recent wooing of the iffy Puntland authorities by Western powers. It should be wondering how to ensure that the success of armed guards against piracy does not end up escalating violence but instead remains an effective interim solution until the situation is finally resolved on the ground in Somalia. 

Instead of doing all this, all that the parasites in shipping want to do- from the very top downwards- is to find ways to feather their own petty little self-interests. That is their single point agenda. If that includes letting piracy thrive, so be it.

I guess every industry has its parasites, but it is the rare industry where one finds the whole shebang, almost without exception- national and international regulators, unions, industry bodies and pious non-profit organisations included- collaborating with a criminal enterprise like piracy in a hundred little ways. It is a rare industry that shows such complete contempt for the torture and abuse of a significant segment of its employees, whom it ignores even as it junkets at their expense. It is a rare industry that feeds on itself so willingly.

I do not know which way Somali piracy will go; it may be defeated or it may morph once again, resilient and adaptive. I tend to think that we will graduate to an era of intelligence driven high value heists of ships instead of opportunistic attacks, but I am far from sure about this.

I am sure, however, that the suckers of the parasites that claim to be fighting piracy will remain attached to the teats, arteries and veins of the industry long after the Somali threat is dead and gone. These leeches will not be satiated so easily; they will have to be burnt off with cigarette ends, dropped to the ground and stomped upon before we are rid of them.

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