July 03, 2014

No farewell to arms

The spate of pirate attacks on small tankers and other vessels in South East Asia over the last three months has followed a predictable pattern, and so has the industry response. The boarding of vessels by armed men who take control of the ship, destroy communications equipment, siphon off the liquid cargo to another small tanker or barge and disembark after stealing the crew’s valuables is followed, usually, by warnings broadcast to Captains of the increased threat and statements from countries around the kill zone (usually Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia) promising to do more. The number of attacks has doubled in the last three years.

A third of global trade passes through these waters, but, as usual, we in shipping are reacting to threats rather than taking early and proven decisive action. Which is this- ships should be sailing with armed guards at the first sign of trouble.

In a rare success, coordination between Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore did manage to foil an attack last month, the pirates fleeing the hijacked ship when they saw a patrol boat approach. But sailors like me, who have spent years on short runs in the South China Sea, the Singapore and Malacca Straits and in the rivers of Indonesia- and have been boarded by pirates once or twice- will tell you how quick and easy it is for a couple of boats to appear out of nowhere in those restricted waters dotted with hundreds of islands, and to disappear equally quickly after an attack. 

Piracy in these waters has been around forever, although thankfully in a more benign form than, for example, Somali piracy; I used to be more concerned about a collision or grounding with pirates aboard than being killed by them. But that is because ships cannot be hijacked for long here; there is no failed State around. 

The simple fact is that criminals around the world know for sure, thanks to the ease with which South East Asian, Somali and Nigerian piracy has flourished, how unprotected merchant ships really are. Terrorists know how vulnerable these ships are, especially when sailing in restricted waters like the Suez, in narrow straits, or close to the coast. Most of all, they know that the industry is impotent; it cannot- or will not- take quick action. 

This must change. The default setting must be that ships must be able to arm themselves. That the ability to fire a couple of warning shots in the air has deterred pirate attacks around the world is beyond dispute. No ship with armed guards has been taken so far. Even off Somalia. Patrols by the navies of the world are an inferior deterrent. Arming ships should be our first response, not our last; it works.

The UN, along with the IMO and the rest of the maritime industry, has no real option except to prepare the groundwork- and quickly, please- to make the option of armed guards a real (and real time) possibility. To enact legislation  and then persuade countries around the world that a few guns aboard a merchant vessel calling their ports do not constitute either gunrunning, a national security threat or anything else that is sinister. To put mechanisms in place that will give ship owners the option of arming their ships whenever the threat of piracy- or terrorism- is foreseen. 

Else we- and our crews- will forever remain hostage to anybody who can put a fast skiff in the water with a bunch of men armed with guns. Or worse, explosives. 


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