Sunday, 27 February 2011

Somali piracy's end game nigh?

Two critical mistakes by Somali pirates could soon end their mayhem which has caused unprecedented damage to the global economy at the hands of so few. The first was their murder of four American hostages on February 22 and the second is that they have reportedly reached a multi-million dollar deal with the Islamic militant terrorist group, al-Shabaab, allegedly linked to al-Qaeda. In return for a safe anchorage at Harardhere and the release of pirate chiefs by al-Shabaab, the pirates will reportedly pay 20% of all ransoms to al-Shabaab, who captured Harardhere last year. This dramatically raises the stakes which can end in only one of two ways -- a far worse costly disruption to world trade or punitive military intervention both at sea and on land.

The latter move to deal with terrorists is a game changer, believes Wing Commander Paddy O' Kennedy, spokesman for the EU naval force operating in the Horn of Africa, because it could change the rules of engagement. Payments of ransoms to terrorists are illegal so any hostage sailors could find themselves languishing in squalid conditions for years, as opposed to months so far. Faced with such threats it is hardly surprising that the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), an umbrella organisation representing 720,000 seafarers worldwide, sees "no alternative but to stop putting people and ships within their reach, with all the effects that could have on world trade and oil and food prices."

The ITF is now, therefore, advising seafarers and their trade unions to begin to prepare to refuse to go through the danger area. In a warning to shipowners, ITF said: "The risk of passing through the affected area and the knowledge of the inhuman manner in which captured seafarers will be treated amount to a breach of their duty of care to seafarers. It is also reckless, to a point, that should a seafarer be killed by a pirate attack while the vessel transits the high risk area, it would amount to corporate manslaughter. We call on the military to neutralise the threat caused by the use of mother ships."

There seems, however, to be a problem with mother ships in that the pirates have reportedly changed tack by seizing large fishing vessels as mother ships and using their hapless crews as human shields. It is, therefore, perhaps fatuous for the ITF to call on the military for this specific help unless such ships are entirely crewed by pirates. Its other pronouncements also betray woolly thinking. It calls on flag states, for example, to deploy naval assets to protect ships from piracy but but many tiny flag states, like St Vincent and the Turks & Caicos Islands, have scarcely two brass farthings to rub together and to expect them to take custody of convicted pirates is a fanciful notion. An American Nato admiral also advised that even a World War 2 naval fleet would be inadequate over such a vast area and called on merchantmen to be armed.

Belatedly, the ITF is coming round to the view that merchantmen should be armed but not by seafarers. Rather, they favour military personnel or private armed guards, subject to agreement by trade unions. It also calls on the UN to take all necessary measures to address the underlying, shore-based situation in Somalia which has allowed piracy to flourish, without saying what those measures should be. A long-term UN armed presence will have little appeal to America and European nations, given past experiences, already overstretched with current military obligations and straightened economic circumstances at home.

There is no doubt that arming of merchantmen will help but by itself is unlikely to end the pirate scourge. It is not just al-Shabaab that will be taking baksheesh but local officials who have been taking up to a third of ransom monies, much of which, claims John Drake, a piracy specialist with the security firm, AKE, "is already falling in al-Shabaab's hands."

Lightning punitive actions in all known pirate ports, with carefully planned rescue attempts of hostage sailors, seem to be closer. There is, of course, an alternative -- a complete boycott by all seafarers of the Arabian Gulf and much of the Indian Ocean. But in global economic terms the consequences of that would be disastrous, making the current $7-12 billion annual piracy cost look like small change. There would also be a political price to pay through more instability in a region already wracked by despised, corrupt and incompetent regimes. Egypt, for example, could have done so much more to deploy its 12 frigates on anti-piracy patrols and so cut down the loss of its Suez Canal transit fees. Even relatively stable neighbouring countries could have trouble coping with the loss of tourism revenue from cancelled cruise ship calls and other disruptions.

The time is surely nigh for condign punitive action of the kind Algiers received nearly 200 years ago, which permanently ended the centuries-old scourge of the Barbary pirates. It would, of course, have sad consequences as innocent parties would suffer along with the guilty but history clearly shows that down through the ages pirates have only ever respected one language -- applied superior force. It is not enough to sink them at sea. Their lairs must also be neutralised -- an action that has no legal bar.

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