August 02, 2012

Is Barkis Willing?

The irony is not lost on me; the UN's IMO spent years promoting Best Management Practices as the way to contain Somali piracy, when some of us were saying - sometimes to the point of exasperation, as my column will testify- that armed guards were the only short term solution. Owners and insurers eventually sidestepped the IMO, employing armed escorts of varying integrity in increasing numbers. Then, when it became clear that what we were saying was right all along- the numbers of successful hijacks plunged because of armed escorts - the IMO suddenly appeared to rediscover some old apprehensions about the whole business, and started examining the process of regulating the security industry. The United Nations led BMP bandwagon- propagated, cynics say, at the behest of Western commercial interests- was rolled back; the IMO could not justify the charade any longer, so it stopped trying to regulate BMPs and started on security companies instead.

Today, a few years later, the wheel is coming back full circle with a delicious quirk. The Asian Shipowners’ Forum has now submitted a detailed plan asking for UN armed personnel to board and escort merchant ships through the Somali pirate kill zone. The ASF's  'Blue Beret' solution involves floating bases- converted containerships stationed strategically in the Indian Ocean- that will become the embarkation and disembarkation points for a total of about 800 UN soldiers working in four-man escort teams. The ASF represents shipowners’ associations from Australia, China, Hong Kong, India, Japan, South Korea, and other ASEAN countries; oddly, their proposal would cover only 30 ships- 40% of the 80 vessels pass through the high-risk area- every day. The cost for the 40%? 12 million dollars for purchasing the containerships and another 12 million a year for operations. 

Anyway, here is the sting, intended or not. The ASF says that it prefers the UN route but, as an alternative, seems to propose that a few like minded countries get together to form an armed force if the UN plan doesn't materialise. And, although I am sure that the safety of crews is not the ASF's highest priority, some of its members do represent a part of the world that produces a huge number of seafarers, not to speak of Indian fishermen who seem to be a favoured target of trigger-happy soldiers these days- not least the Italians and the Americans. 

The ASF plan seems very logical on the face of it. After all, the United Nations Security Council does have the power and responsibility- under the UN Charter- to take collective action to maintain international peace and security. The protection of international trade must surely rank high on the list by this definition alone. As for the money, ongoing US peacekeeping operations (8 in Africa alone) cost the world 5 billion dollars annually; what is another piffling 24 million?

So why hasn't this been done so far? - is the first question that begs to be asked. It is not as if the ASF proposal is one that has been mooted for the first time: far from it. This question goes to the heart of the matter of the manner of the UN's functioning, even its relevance. Over the years, how much of the UN filibustering on piracy was at the behest of countries with their special interest groups in the insurance, kidnap and ransom and maritime security companies?  How much of the flimflamming is attributable to bureaucracy and how much to malice? How many diplomats fiddled while sailors burned? 

In any event, the ASF plan is embarrassing for the UN and the IMO. Here they were, years ago, discouraging armed guards and producing 'new improved' versions of the BMP almost every other month. Nothing was working. Later, they grudgingly accepted armed guards but continued to attribute the improved situation to the 'success' of BMPs and navies. The industry knew different. It voted with its feet, putting more and more military escorts aboard its vessels. 

So, embarrassment for the UN if it accepts ASF's recommendations. Why didn't you go this way earlier? Many told you to get involved long ago. You could have sidestepped the entire BMP circus and the private armed guards issue- the quality of many security companies was suspect right from the start, and you knew it. Your member States knew it. Some of them even counted on it. 

Alternatively, if the UNSC disregards the ASF recommendations, of course, the industry will continue the 'private armed guards' route- whenever and wherever its assets are threatened in future- the dangers of which are well known and do not require repetition here.  

Of course, the ASF figures on costs will have to be reworked if the UN gets involved. For one, these cover just 40% of effected ships. What happens to the other 60? For another, the UN and its bodies do not do anything cheaply. I am sure those Blue Berets will get their rest periods, even if crews on the ships they protect do not. More connected questions: Why restrict this to Somalia? What about growing West African piracy? 

I don't know what will happen with all this, but the odds are not in favour of the ASF proposal. Will some of its member countries balk at the thought of Blue Beret interference in the territorial waters of sovereign nations? Will the UN and its bodies be pressurised by special interest groups through their host States again? Will bureaucratic lassitude continue? Will the charade be orchestrated again? Will everybody finally see the light? Will the fear of setting a precedent- that would require UN peacekeeping Blue Beret solutions for future security threats at sea- make the UN and the IMO back off the ASF proposal? 

Is Barkis willing?


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