November 26, 2009

Blockade, Arm and Stockade

Since he was Asian, the reported killing of the North Korean Captain of the ‘Theresa VIII’ during that ship’s hijack last week received a small fraction of the media coverage that the US crewed ship ‘Maersk Alabama’ did as she was attacked for the second time this year; the first attempt in April saw the international media going to town after Capt. Phelps dramatic rescue by US Navy snipers. The Maersk Alabama escaped this time because a security team on board fired on the pirates in self defence, killing some of them.

The New York Times quoted Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, Commander of the US Central Command after the attack: “Due to the Maersk Alabama following maritime industry’s best practices such as embarking security teams, the ship was able to prevent being successfully attacked by pirates.”

Excuse me; did he just say that the deployment of security teams was a maritime industry best practice? Somebody tell our brethren in Mumbai and their global clients quick, please. Seems like most of them are conveniently and blissfully unaware of this best practice.

Almost concurrently with the Alabama attack, the United States State Department advised Greek shipowners (who control 20 percent of global deadweight tonnage) that they should arm their crews to protect against pirate attacks. Also, the Spanish government (even as they paid a reported 3.5 million US dollars for the release of the fishing vessel Alakrana and her crew) confirmed that a) all Spanish fishing boats in the Indian Ocean would henceforth have private security guards armed with military equipment, including high velocity rifles, aboard and b) Spain was pushing for a blockade of ‘pirate ports’ in Somalia.

The Spanish initiative makes sense to me, although I will add one more essential element to it later. Since the most powerful countries in the world cannot together patrol the 68 million square kilometers of the Indian Ocean, simple logic dictates that pirates will have to be contained at one of two places they are sure to be found: either in the area where they leave their homes to hunt for ships in the open sea or at the target vessel itself. We should do both.

The Somali coastline, at 3000km, is not all that long to patrol; I remember, in 2002, when I was on a regular run (for four months) between Dar es Salaam, Mombasa, Yemen and Sudan, that coalition ships and aircraft used to patrol the Somali coast and the Gulf of Aden daily. Their purpose seemed to me the same as it is today: as a counterweight to terrorist and pirate activity. I agree that 2002 is not 2009 when piracy has grown tremendously (though ships were still being attacked regularly and taken in 2002, most such activity stopped within a hundred miles of the coast), but my point is that the Somali coastline has not grown any larger and should be as easy to patrol. Moreover, the coalition now seems to have a much more supportive government in Mogadishu that is fighting Al Qaeda linked Islamists and has often said that it will welcome help; indeed, it sometimes looks to me as if they are asking for it. Moreover, we are not talking about a blockade of the entire country; just relatively small portions of the coastline that have traditionally been pirate recruitment, infrastructure and support havens.

I also do not believe that, in a clan centred society like Somalia, pirates will be able to move up and down the coast and establish alternate havens quickly in the event of a partial blockade. Blockades can shift or be repositioned more quickly than the pirates can create new oases of support.

A partial blockade will be a good option to the alternative: a UN or NATO land based armed engagement in Somalia. Frankly, the US does not have the stomach for it at this time, though they have often expressed huge concern over the resurgence of Al Qaeda terrorist training camps in the country: a fact that should worry India too.

Such a blockade will be imperfect, which is why ships in the kill zone must have additional sufficient protection. Armed protection, at that: although crews have used everything from tomatoes to home made Molotov cocktails to deter pirates, a viable deterrent must involve small or medium firepower. Given the oft quoted reasons for not arming crews, the only alternative then left is the deployment of protective, sufficiently armed and professional security teams.

Frankly, I am puzzled why this has not become the norm after years of the piracy menace. One reason is, I suspect, that the industry is looking at this problem in its usual compartmentalised way. A shipowner may be unwilling to bear the additional cost for security teams if he can pass on sufficient risk to the charterer by an appropriate clause in the charter party; some standard charter parties have been amended to allow for this spreading of risk. Insurance companies hedge their risk similarly in specialised markets. I suspect that, in the end, it is just a dollars and cents scenario for all these people; a 'how much does this cost me?' exercise. As for the crews at risk, the question being asked in shipping and insurance boardrooms across the world must be: ‘How do we limit liability and payouts if a crewmember is killed?’ It is hardly the first time that this callous pricing of a seafarers life is done, but the practice of putting human life below that of a decimal point difference on a balance sheet bottomline is abhorrent every time.

As for the third element I promised to add, here it is: In my opinion, we must, along with placing security teams on board and a blockade of pirate haven ports, find watertight means of bringing captured pirates to justice. This is all up in the air now. Some are dumped to be prosecuted in Kenya; high profile (read Western) target hijacks result in any captured pirates being taken to those countries for trial. Some have been dumped on Yemen in the past. The coalition does not seem to be able to get its arms around jurisdictional and other such legal issues. These are thorny, we are told.

So make new international regulations that take away the thorns, good people! Find a way of keeping captured pirates in a stockade! For, if the international community cannot find a mechanism to prosecute armed marauders caught while boarding merchant ships and sometimes killing crews, often assaulting them and invariably holding them hostage for months, then it should, instead, call itself the coalition of the absurd.

I would also like the Indian Government to do more. Actually, scratch that; considering that they have done precious little, I would like them to do much more. For one, it is the Indian Ocean after all, and India has strategic geopolitical interests there. Two, we are particular victims of terrorism, and there are links between piracy and terrorism, including Al Qaeda and Pakistani links. Three, a large part of our trade, now at risk due to piracy, is through this region. And four, Indian ships and seafarers may be at particular risk, given the US warning last month that they could be targeted. With Indians working on both Indian and foreign vessels, pressure needs to be increased on foreign flags and owners as well as Indian shipowners to take the essential steps to protect Indian nationals. Security teams on any ships with any Indians on board, is what I would like to see.

Unfortunately, besides the usual expressions of concern and politicians’ vacuous promises, the Indian Government is beatifically silent on this threat. As usually happens when it comes to mariner security or welfare issues, it is sleepwalking through this one too. The Americans are protecting their citizens; it is time India did the same.