With piracy at sea hitting an all-time high in the first three months of 2011, the ITF Seafarers' Trust charity* and the TK Foundation launched a new initiative on September 29, the Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Programme (MPHRH) to help all those seafarers and their families cope with the traumas of piracy. "Until now, there has been little coordinated help for those who are suffering," said Roy Paul of the Seafarers' Trust. All that will now change as the comprehensive programme attempts to build up a network of first responders and get psychological help for affected crews and their loved ones. The programme will be a continuum of care functioning before, during and after piratical attacks.
Given the shameful attitudes of some ship owners towards their traumatised crews, the ITF initiative is desperately needed and the task ahead dauntingly huge and complex. Dr Peter Swift, MPHRP Chair, praised those shipping companies for implementing the industry's best management practices and sound practices to address the humanitarian needs of their crews and their family members but "regrettably many have not," he said. It is reminiscent of those dark early days of World War 2 when captured British merchant seamen were not compensated for their loss of personal possessions or even paid while in captivity, leaving them stressed over how their families would cope at home.
Laudable though this imitative is, it deals only with the symptoms of piracy, growing steadily stronger over the last seven years. Nearly 4,000 seafarers have been taken hostage in the past five years and detained for months in appalling conditions. Tens of thousands of others have been the victims of attacks. Today, nearly 300 seafarers are being held hostage on ships off the Somali coast -- all of them under increasingly violent conditions. Having "crossed the line from savagery into torture," said Dr Swift, often drug-crazed pirates leave crews stripped naked in cold stores for hours, tie crew's genitals with cable ties and subject them to mock executions and even keel hauling.
The annual cost of piracy is now put at $12 billion, but that probably does not include the cost of holding higher stocks as ships take longer to reach their destinations via the Cape of Good Hope. In terms of human costs, Dr Marion Gibson, psychosocial consultant to MPHRH, told this writer that the families of returned hostages felt aggrieved that in many cases pirates were not being punished for their crimes. This is one of the most abject, shameful aspects of the pirate scourge. Some hundreds of Somali pirates were released this year, many of whom were on their third arrest. Some countries are reluctant to try pirates, partly on cost grounds, and countries like Kenya and the Seychelles are already overloaded by pirates.
Anti piracy barriers must be eased
Pirates are doubtless grateful for many other obstacles put in the way of their capture and condign punishment. Some countries have laws against merchant ships entering their countries with arms on board and there are insurance obstacles. ITF itself is opposed to arming seafarers and advocates offering no resistance when attacked. The various navies on station in the Indian Ocean are doing their best with limited resources but as one NATO admiral said: "You could put a World War 2 navy out there and it still would not be enough."
Given the inability of the navies to eradicate the scourge, I asked Rear Admiral Ort, Chief of Staff of NATO's HQ in London, if the international community should not go one step further, once all hijacked crews and their ships had been released, by preventing further hijackings and attacks through the arming of crews or placing armed private contractors and trained, seconded naval personnel on board. After all, one American NATO admiral admitted that merchantmen should be armed.
"First of all," replied Admiral Ort, "I would say it is more complicated because whatever we do at sea is actually only fighting symptoms. The real cause of the problem lies ashore. It is directly related to the fact that Somalia is a failed state without the necessary institutions. So the longer term structural solution involves building Somalia as a nation state to deal with this. Obviously this is longer term but shorter term we are stuck with fighting the symptoms." The admiral also voiced concerns over armed private contractors on board. "Some are really very good but obviously some of them are less so," but he did confirm that trained, armed naval personnel are now being supplied to merchantmen but the problem here was one of capacity owing to the thousands of ships transiting the Gulf of Aden every year.
Logic, therefore, inescapably points to the need to offer some seafarers training in weapons handling and anti-boarding tactics in return for financial inducements. The multitude of barriers to this would have to be eased while the emergency lasts. "We as an international community need to get our act together," said Rear Admiral Ort. Failing that, the piracy scourge will worsen unless, perhaps, a final solution is adopted reminiscent of the bombardment of Algiers in 1816 and 1824. That option, however, would tragically involve many innocents and would outrage international opinion. But it should be remembered that even the restoration of national good governance in Somalia may not be the solution. Other countries, after all, which are not failed states, have been emboldened by the Somali pirates' runaway success and are making life particularly difficult off the west coast of Africa.
*ITF's ability to offer badly needed help is circumscribed by its limited funds. Donations would be welcomed at: www.mphrp.org