June 16, 2011

Torture- out of the closet

Question: Why does a gay man come out of the closet?
Answer: Because- like the maritime industry- he cannot see anything.

So it comes to pass that the industry that specialises in publicising the well known comes out of the closet once again. Much like its earlier responses to issues like seafarer fatigue and criminalisation, it finally acknowledges- even broadcasts- what everybody has known for a while. That massive numbers of seafarers are being tortured at the hands of pirates. That, in the words of One Earth Foundation, "seafarers were sometimes locked in freezers, hung from ships’ masts or meat hooks or had their genitals attached to electric wires. Pirates also sometimes called seafarers’ families from their mobile telephones, then beat them in their families’ hearing – a tactic designed to increase pressure on ship-owners to pay ransoms."

The industry does not explain exactly why it has chosen to accept this fact now. “It is not in the interests of the shipping industry to make information about crew mistreatment generally available because of the level of mutinies which would take place,” says CEO of Idarat Maritime Andrew Palmer.

My own theory is that the macabre truth could not be hidden from public view any longer. With so many stories of torture, killings and other atrocities emerging with regularity, ship-owners and their self-serving organisations cannot express denial any longer. No longer can they threaten and cajole their crews to keep mum about what they went through at the hands of pirates- they have been traumatised too much and for too long.

No longer can the IMO and its ineffectual officials sweep torture and worse under the carpet, choosing to concentrate on the economic costs of piracy and those nauseating Best Management Practices instead. That citadel- like that citadel they tom-tommed in those same BMPs as the next coming in the fight against piracy, has been breached too. In any case, those in positions of commercial and regulatory authority remind me of the pupae that sit inside a silk cocoon. That is their closet, for they have no idea- or they choose to ignore- what lies outside. The thick-skinned chrysalis can, like these shipping honchos, pretend ignorance for a while, but make no mistake. The metamorphosis is inevitable; the truth, like the butterfly, will out- or the caterpillar will die.

Therefore, I am glad that it is no longer possible for the industry to sweep its shame under the carpet. It is good that more and more people know, today, that mariners risk a greater chance of being assaulted in the Indian Ocean than landlubbers in the most dangerous, criminally infested places in the world. Barring countries at war, of course. 

The few in the maritime space that actually care about this industry enough to look at a longer term view should spend some time wondering why it is that- time and again- issues that concern the well being of their sailors can be cast aside with impunity. They should contemplate why so many seafarer concerns- on health, safety, working conditions, fatigue, torture and criminalisation, for a start, leave so many of their contemporaries unconcerned. They should be worried about the long-term sustainability of an industry that feels it can blatantly disregard the aspirations of more than a million of its critical employees, and that too with conspicuous contempt. The few mavericks in shipping committed to their professions should be concerned how they will manage, at a time of falling mariner standards and rising operational complexity, a future workforce that will, in all probability, be even less committed than that they see today. They should be wondering how the industry will stem the rot- or even stop the stink with something more permanent than an aerosol spray.

And, if history repeats itself, these few good men will probably call a conference to devise a path to form a plan to study ways to meet the objective of another set of self-serving agendas. Something tells me that the result will be the calling of another conference, and the merry go round will start again.

But all that is later. As of now, the fact that a third of its mariners taken hostage in 2010 were systematically tortured and brutalised is only being acknowledged by the industry now, in almost the second half of 2011, up to eighteen months after the first of those seafarers were tortured. This is a fact that will return to haunt this industry. It will return every time we claim, as we love to do, that seafarers are our families and our best assets. It will return every time we ask why more youngsters are shunning the profession than ever before.

It will return to bite us in our behinds. As it should. For this sailor, at least, there is small- and perhaps improper- solace in that fact.

No comments: