If Press reports are true then at long last Somali pirates face their nemesis from a military solution that this writer has been advocating since December 2008. It seems that an Anglo-French naval force will attack pirates' camps and target their boats before they put to sea. Such action would be legal, says Britain's Attorney-general, Dominic Grieve.
Such an approach makes sense because hitherto naval action was only taken at sea when fast pirate skiffs were attacking vessels or had hijacked them, and when pirates were captured they were often released to resume their depredations because no country wanted to assume responsibility and costs for bringing them to trial. If pirate vessels cannot leave their ports then they cannot hijack any more vessels, but it is not enough to simply blockade them. The Anglo-French fleet cannot stay indefinitely offshore so that is why fishing vessels large enough to act as pirate mother ships and their skiffs must be sunk in their lairs and their fuel and repair facilities levelled. But the force should resist any land engagements and leave that to the African Union peacekeeping troops already in Somalia. There is also the thorny problem of several hundred captured seafarers languishing in squalid conditions. The MV Iceberg, a ro-ro vessel, has just past two years in captivity, the longest ever, and of its multi-national crew of 24 one has committed suicide. Tragically, too, innocent fishing vessels would be lost.
'Calculated risk' approach was not cheaper
But why has it taken so long to reach this conclusion, a delay that has seen the murder of over 40 seafarers, the torture of many more and costs to the global economy of between US$7 billion and US$12 billion a year? There were, after all, historical precedents like the bombardment of Algiers in 1816 and 1824 which successfully ended the scourge of Barbary pirates permanently.
There were, understandably, fears by international umbrella unions like the ITF that the arming of merchantmen would place crews at greater peril, while insurance companies and even regional governments fretted over the imagined illegalities of arming crews. Yet it was plain to see that all the industry's attempts to resolve the issue "seemed doomed to failure", as I reported in my September 2010 blog, "Somali piracy may cripple global logistics." Putting a World War 2 fleet in the Indian Ocean, said Admiral Mark Fitzgerald, commander of NATO Allied Joint Task Force Command, Naples, would still not be enough to cover the whole ocean, and the pirate mother ships were attacking vessels over 1,100 miles from Somali shores.
Insurance companies do not emerge bathed in glory over this procrastination, which would shame earlier generations for their supine, spineless role. Although having to pay out on the pirate ransoms, the insurance companies jacked up their premiums so much that they earned far more than before the piracy began. When this writer interviewed captain Bjorn Haave, vice president of IFSMA, the captain naturally put the seafarers' safety interests first and said the whole area should be declared a no-go region except for escorted vessels bound for Somali ports. If insurers refused to cover vessels plying the infested areas many ships would have felt forced to use the Cape of Good Hope route, a logistically costly scenario that would have been very much more had it not been for the rock bottom freight rates spawned by the recession and a glut of new shipping tonnage entering the market. There would also have been the problem of West African piracy to contend with.
Ship owners themselves were also guilty in their namby-pamby response to this crisis because they chose the 'calculated risk' approach which they thought would be cheaper than a final solution. Events have glaringly proved otherwise. As a result, all parties involved have spawned a result that has left many hapless seafarers feeling abandoned if not also betrayed. It may well go down as one of the most shameful episodes in the annals of maritime history.
"War and courage have done more than charity,
Not your pity but your courage hath hitherto saved the unfortunate"