Friday, 11 February 2011

Somali piracy --- sympathy is not enough

The recent Somali pirate attack on the Beluga Nomination 390 nautical miles north of the Seychelles plumbed new depths of barbarity. It brings nearer the likelihood of an irremediable military strike on all known pirate ports harbouring the mother ships which give the pirates the range to attack over 1,000 miles from their shores.

The incident on January 22 involved taking aside three captured seafarers for punishment as reprisals for an abortive attempt by the Seychelles coastguard to free the hostages, during which one Somali pirate was shot dead. The tortures reportedly included keel hauling and hanging seafarers up by their ankles while their heads were under water. At least one sailor was murdered in cold blood, bringing the total murdered so far to over 40.

In a press release issued by the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) on February 2, BIMCO, the International Chamber of Shipping, Intercargo and Intertanko all declared their outrage at such cold-blooded murder, adding: "We express our deepest sympathy to the seafarers involved and to their anxious families." But sympathy can never be enough and nor is the industry's repeated calls to urge governments to empower their naval forces to take fast and robust action against pirates and the vessels under their control, before passing ships are boarded and hijacked.

As explained in my last report on Somali piracy headed: "Somali piracy may cripple global logistics," Admiral Mark Fitzgerald, commander of NATO allied joint task force, Naples, said: "We could put a World War 2 fleet out there and it would still not be able to cover the whole ocean." He advocated arming merchant ships in the Horn of Africa.

The ITF has so far opposed the arming of merchant ships for understandable reasons but it and the shipping industry must realize that if they take no action to defend their ships with lethal force then the logic for a crushing military strike on known pirate ports against all fishing vessels large enough to act as mother ships is incontrovertible. Even ITF's General-Secretary, David Cockroft, recently chastised the majority of those who make the most from shipping for "Doing little or nothing." Insurance companies, it could be said, even have a vested interest in playing no part in a resolution as they are making far more money since jacking up premiums 4-5 fold than they are paying out in ransoms.

The ITF believes this latest atrocity marks a shift in the behaviour of Somali pirates and that shipowners and their crews will be re-evaluating the current determination to ensure this vital trade route, through which 40% of the world's sea-borne oil trade passes, will remain open. This will include alternative routes like around the Cape of Good Hope, which would severely raise transport costs and delivery times. Piracy is already estimated to have cost the global economy between $7 billion and $12 billion a year but that does not include the impact on just-in-time production techniques.

Shipping's supine response exacerbates seafarers' woes

Shipping lines and their trade bodies may bluster indignantly about the piracy menace but their supine response so far has only encouraged ever-more piratical attacks, which now sees an estimated 500 seafarers imprisoned in squalid conditions for many months. Underlying this discreditable response is the industry's preference for the "calculated risk" approach and the fact that their increased costs can be passed on to consumers hard hit by the credit crunch. Such nonchalant thinking, however, is particularly dangerous for developing countries dependent on subsidised staples like wheat. Last September this blog site warned about the consequences of Somali piracy on Egypt's economy, which could see Suez Canal transit fees plummet, and chastised the Egyptian regime's shameful refusal to deploy its 12 frigates adequately on piracy patrols. "There could also be incalculable damage to Egypt's economy through the loss of billions of dollars in canal transit fees which could destabilize the whole country," I warned. So far, estimates reveal that Egypt is losing $642 million a year as ships reroute to avoid the canal, a sum equivalent to a quarter of money spent on food subsidies. Sadly, that instability exploded last month as discontent over annual food inflation hit 18%, the world's highest. There may be other reasons for Egypt's social discontent but Somali piracy is not unconnected to the country's economic woes.

History shows punitive action works

Fortunately, at long last some shipping lines are taking more robust action to defend their ships, and according to Wiki-leaks, ex-SAS officers are being hired by foreign shipping firms through a private commercial firm. But some believe that these hired officers are seen as bait because the shipowners believe that the Royal Navy will intervene to rescue them and free their vessels. Such a scenario seems unlikely but it raises concerns that the Royal Navy is being forced to act as an international police force because other navies are failing to pull their weight off the Horn of Africa, not least Egypt. This is a pity because even a very small military response has already been effective. In November 2008 the Royal Navy shot dead two Somali pirates while repelling an attack on a Danish cargo ship off the Yemen coast. American navy officers at the time ascribed a sharp fall in pirate attacks in the first half of 2009 to this British intervention.

It would surely be far more effective, therefore, if decisive action was taken against all known pirate ports harbouring the pirates' mother ships. There is, undeniably, a tragic element in such punitive action in that innocent fishing vessels would be sunk along with the guilty but when pirates ply their trade they declare war on many nations and in any war collateral damage is unavoidable. There is also the safety of hostage seafarers to consider.

There is no legal bar to such action as the UN Security Council Resolution 1851 authorises military action against piracy on Somali territory. But if such action is considered too punitive then the only other effective means must include the arming of ships passing through the infested seas. The former initiative, however, would be much cheaper and quicker and there are historical precedents to prove its effectiveness. For centuries the Barbary pirates were the scourge of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic but when their Algiers stronghold was bombarded in 1816 and 1824 and their ships sunk their stranglehold was broken permanently and 1,000 Christian slaves released unharmed. It is to be hoped that it will not take centuries to eradicate the Somali pirate scourge.

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