October 04, 2012

Fishing for trouble

The sporadic yawping from the United Nations and sections of the mainstream media about the use of private maritime security companies has been going on for a few months, and is now beginning to get annoying. Shipping needs to get on an aggressive media offensive to educate the critics and tell the obtuse where to get off.

A world that treated- for a couple of decades- the seafarer’s life as expendable and the torture of thousands of his colleagues as acceptable has no moral right to shed crocodile tears over a few fishermen’s unlawful deaths today; an international organisation that made no serious effort to stop piracy has no business getting wet dreams about regulating a proven workable private-sector solution. And newspapers and news channels that are now screeching at the killings of a few fishermen by guards should explain why they ignored the wanton killings of tens of the same folk by the governments of their countries when hijacked trawlers were raked with gunfire from naval ships who knew with complete certainty that innocent people would be killed.

Every violent death of an innocent is tragic, but we can do without the hypocrisy that says that fishermen are deserving victims and seamen are not. A lack of perspective is understandable when a reporter masquerades as an analyst, but a United Nations playing to the gallery is unacceptable, especially when it is their spectacular failure that gave rise to the magnitude of the problem in the first case.

The killings of two Indian fishermen by Italian military guards, the trigger-happy shooting of a third by the US naval supply vessel Rappahannock near Dubai and the apparent murder of a Yemeni fishermen by Russian soldiers sent to escort the Nordic Fighter in the Red Sea are all incidents that have given rise to the recent simulated outrage at the UN and elsewhere. Each of these incidents, it must be stressed, involved military personnel and not private guards. The criticism of private guards is therefore facile and seems to be aimed with the intent to control, nothing more. 

I am not claiming, even for a moment, that private guards are better or even preferable to military men, for I believe the opposite. I am not saying that private guards are blameless- far from it. Oman, for example, has complained of “drive-by shootings” of its fishermen by private guards off merchant ships, conjuring up visions of trigger-happy riff-raff displaying an abhorrent disregard for life.  

No, this is not an either-or thing; I am just pointing out the hypocrisy of the whole exercise- hypocrisy that is no doubt precipitated by the fact that there are 2.3 million fishermen that go out to sea in the Indian Ocean versus the relatively minute numbers of seamen. Fishermen often form powerful constituencies at home, after all.

In fact, I am only insisting that shipping, for its own sake, set the record straight. Regulation and control is usually the first urge or the last refuge of the bureaucrat. That animal is behaving true to form today, and industry bodies claiming to represent shipowners and unions claiming to represent seafarers need to tell him a bit about the birds and the bees before his basic instincts do any more damage. At the outset, he needs to be told that it is his failure that has brought things to where they are today, and that things were much worse when sailors relied on him and his ilk to do something to solve Somali piracy.

In addition, this is what I would tell those UN officials, member States and media folk who are hyperactive today about the killings of a handful of fishermen (my ‘Facts of Life 101’, if you will): Folks, ships will continue to hug some coastlines to avoid pirates, and will so end up closer to fishing boats. Private armed guards will be professional or not; cheaper or substandard operators will inevitably employ cheaper and substandard security. Some may have no training, no clear rules of engagement or be trigger happy. Innocent fishermen may be sometimes killed. Crews, almost without exception, will not complain too much at these tragedies, and neither will shipowners, managers, cargo interests or insurers. Well managed companies will do everything to avoid this happening; others will just not care enough, will hope for the best and bumble their way through. Same as in any other industry, actually.

It is your incompetence and the foolishness of your members that has brought things to this pass; we should tell the United Nations. We have been forced to find our own solutions- however expensive and imperfect- because you have not done what you are paid to do. We don’t want to pay for armed guards but you have left us with no choice. We do not want to kill fishermen, but neither do we want our crews to be tortured or killed or our commercial enterprises subjected to unmitigated, unmanageable and unaffordable risk. 

Realise that you cannot regulate away crime. This is not a seminar or a junket or an exciting sheaf of blank papers that a committee can sit down with to formulate some new and useless piece of legislation that will come into force after ratification a few years down the road. This is a real life problem that needs real time solutions.

Shipping will not accept your carping or criticism about its solutions to piracy, we should tell them, or pander any longer to your lust for legislation. So deal with the problem, as your job requires you to do, or real life will make you irrelevant by dealing you out. 


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