October 28, 2008

Delusions of Grandeur

Soon after reading the latest United Nations Security Council resolution 1838 (urging States to “commit naval and air assets to the fight against rampant piracy off lawless Somalia”), I suffered, once again, my occasional delusions of grandeur. I get these sometimes, when I think that I am invincible.

And so I imagined myself as a mover, shaker, stirrer, general stalwart and, for added good measure, a pillar in the international maritime community. With unlimited power. These are a megalomaniac’s delusions; what can I say?

But, what if? What if I were in a position to pass just one resolution in that increasingly irrelevant body, or one in its poor cousin, the IMO? If I had that authority, what would that resolution be?

After the usual padding of grave concerns, notings, reaffirmations, recalls, reiterations, urgings and being seized of the matter (or is it seized by the matter?), this is what the meat of my resolution would say.

The (Saltshaker) IMO Resolution 420 (or, in brief, SIMO)

The SIMO resolves that all ex seafarers under the age of 55 working ashore in all shipowning and shipmanagement companies, shall, with immediate effect, sail for one month of every calendar year on one of the company ships in the rank that they last held at sea. At least three port calls must be made during this one month period.

The SIMO further resolves that, with immediate effect, one senior representative (a non seafarer who must be one of the top three honchos in the Owners’ or Managers’ Head Offices ashore) shall sail on board all owned or managed vessels which transit the Gulf of Aden or the waters off Somalia.

The SIMO will extend Resolution 420 to all regulatory bodies next year, including the IMO, making it mandatory for its officials to sail in Somali waters. A suitable mechanism is being devised; input is solicited from interested parties.

A certificate, (similar to the DOC of the ISPS and renewable annually), will be issued to each ownership and management company’s Head Office by Flag States for this purpose. Without this certificate, any ship owned or managed by them would be unable to proceed to sea. For now, we are calling it the ‘SIMO Eureka Certificate’.


One request now, before we go any further with this. Please stop laughing (or shaking, depending on whether you are at sea or ashore) and read my resolution again as if it were a serious piece of legislation and not horse manure.

First of all, let me congratulate myself on this: the plan requiring officials from the IMO and other regulatory bodies to sail annually (through the worst areas of the world, wherever they may be) seems to be an excellent. Gentlemen, put your money where your mouth is. Put your rears on the line.

All that aside, even the most cynical amongst us must admit there are some other advantages with SIMO 420:

A deepening of understanding of all seafarer related work issues, brought home by the fact that, periodically at least, the suits ashore will be one of them.
Give many ashore the golden opportunity to walk the talk and make improvements.
Address the severe shortage of Officers at sea.
Shore operations and technical personnel will keep in touch with the situation on the ground, machinery and operational issues and the impact of administrative policies.
Give shore managers firsthand knowledge of competencies of seafarers employed
Put pressure on industry in general and hopefully through them, on nations in particular, to solve the issue of seajackings off Somalia.
In future, deeper understanding of the impact of commercial interests, loadlines and fuel stemming and their effect on safety in general in bad weather.
Faster time to market with company related operational decisions. The manager is on board, after all.
Ditto with government and international regulations. I daresay one Director of a major shipowning setup or an IMO representative held hostage in Somalia will be worth a thousand seamen with this one. No diplomatic immunity either.

Against this, the disadvantages are few. Problems in implementation, for one. For example, I can see managers ashore choosing new ships on less troublesome runs for themselves. But what the hell. Imperfect as it is, I believe it is still worth it.

And for those who say that this will give rise to disruption in offices ashore, I propose SIMO 421: “Officers on leave will fill in for those managers and IMO personnel presently at sea”.

That should set the cat amongst the pigeons.

Having solved the immediate issues of the industry in one fell swoop, my mind then graduated to other interesting things. Top of that list was the recent report by P Manoj and P.R. Sanjai in Livemint that Indian crew on a Mercator owned tanker (bound from Kuwait to Europe) had refused to sail through the Gulf of Aden. In fact, Livemint says that the crew threatened to throw themselves overboard instead, whereupon the Master anchored the vessel.

Later, the Hindu Business Line reported that “After prolonged talks between the owners of the ship, the crew and the seafarers union, the ship finally lifted anchor and continued on its course.”

I would have loved to be a fly on the wall during those prolonged talks, but that is not why I mention the incident. I salute that crew, even though I think the tail wagged the dog on the Mercator ship; the decision should have been the Master’s.

Quite apart from this one incident of which I have incomplete knowledge, I will say this. It is a sign of the times and a condemnation of many Masters at sea that we have let commercial interests override the imperatives of Command with respect to the safety of our crews.

Think about this. The international community has admitted unwillingness and incapability in addressing the seajackings issue; statements have been issued saying that the naval coalition is not capable of guaranteeing safety and that owners should take their own security measures. Statements have also been issued that the coalition’s primary task is fighting terrorism, quite ignoring the fact that a portion of the ransoms being paid is going precisely to those terrorists these guys say they are fighting. Although the European Union and NATO are sabre rattling and sending in more naval ships into the area, it will not help merchant mariners if they claim, once again, that their mandate is not primarily to protect us.

International Industry Owner’s bodies have ruled out arming crews for obvious reasons: undermanned ships with untrained civilian crews are hardly a match for trained and heavily armed pirates, whether the crews are armed or not. The industry is not even talking seriously of either arming its crews and training them (once again, nobody has asked the seafarer his preferences) or outsourcing security to professional organisations; one problem is that mercenaries in Africa are suspect, and may well be snakes in the grass. But surely there are European or other such outfits? Other industries employ them to protect employees in high risk countries, don’t they?

Yep, but they cost money.

It seems to me that all and any in a position to do anything about seajackings are running around like headless chickens pointing fingers at each other. Which means that it is up to Masters at sea, now more than ever before, to use the authority which is theirs by right and by statute to protect their crews.

Use that overriding authority, gentlemen. Refuse to sail through dangerous waters, for your life and the lives of your crews are more important than your job. Use that authority, because nobody else is using theirs.

Oh, before I forget. The international community has acted at least once. Security Council resolution 1838; the one I started off with. Urging member States to take action and so on.

More than once, actually. Since February 2008, the United Nations Security Council has adopted the following resolutions on Somalia or the waters around it: Resolutions 1801, 1811, 1814, 1816, 1831 and 1838. Six resolutions in eight or nine months or a resolution every forty days, on an average. One of these (1816 in June) authorised use of force against pirates at sea, same as 1838 passed now.

To make this clearer, six months ago in June, the UNSC adopted 1816, which “urged States to be vigilant to acts of piracy and armed robbery around Somalia and, encouraged them to increase and coordinate their efforts to deter acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea.” (Paraphrased)

And now, in October, the UNSC adopts another one. Resolution 1838 which again “urges States to commit naval and air assets to the fight against rampant piracy off lawless Somalia.” (Paraphrased again)

Like Angelina Jolie or Madonna adopting orphans worldwide, they seem to be adopting resolutions all the time. Bravo!

The UNSC seems to think a resolution and some urgings, like clockwork and every month, is the cornerstone of a solution to both seajackings and their root cause, the two decade old anarchy in Somalia. Diplomats in their Armani suits who probably do not even go to a public rest room without armed security show remarkable resolve on seafarer hostages again! They really seem to think that they have the situation in and around Somalia well under control.

Maybe the next Resolution will urge all the pirates and the industry that thrives around them in Somalia to surrender. That should do it. The UNSC said so.

As you can see, not all delusions of grandeur are mine.


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