The word pirate has this misleading habit of conjuring up illusions of a colorful character perhaps even a lovable rogue with a salty tongue and a jaunty air. The International Maritime Board (IMB), however dryly defines piracy as the act of boarding any vessel with intent to commit theft or any other crime and intent to use force for the same. Although piracy on the high seas has been around for centuries, it reduced drastically during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries due to increased patrolling by naval ships, introduction of legislative measures and better administration of islands and ports.
The resurgence of piracy in the late 20th century coincides with a worldwide reduction in naval fleets along with a corresponding increase in mercantile shipping. Naval ships are expensive to maintain and operate and require support bases located in the general area of interest, with a continuous military presence, all of which became politically and economically unviable in the postcolonial world. The reasons for the emergence of insurgent groups are the same all over the world. Exit of colonial powers from underdeveloped countries, leaving behind a poor political and administrative system ill equipped to compete on a global level, the entry of vested interests and the emergence of power factions armed with weapons funded by multinational corporations seeking to exploit natural resources leading to civil strife and a breakdown of law and order.
Somalia’s is a classic case where seapirates run virtually unchecked in the absence of any form of governmental control. Civil war has raged for twenty years and the federal government controls only a small part of territory around the capital while the coastal regions remain autonomous. Already poor and war torn, the region suffers from repeated droughts. Tagged as a failed state, the fact remains that Somalia has the longest coastline in Africa and sits at a strategic position dominating the entry into the Indian Ocean from the Gulf of Aden. The absence of a Somali navy or Coast Guard has reportedly been exploited by European firms to dump toxic wastes, effectively killing off the livelihood of local fishermen. Elsewhere, foreign fishing vessels have illegally harvested the locals’ fishing grounds. Initially grouped together to fight off illegal foreign trawlers, the fishermen, who included former soldiers, soon found an easier catch, the large numbers of slow moving, unguarded merchant vessels carrying high value cargo and passing fairly near their coast.Justifying their attacks as retribution for illegal dumping and stolen fish,they also soon discovered that ship owners were more than willing to pay for the release of their crew and cargo and that piracy was far more lucrative than fishing.
According to the Piracy Reporting Centre of the IMB, out of 346 attacks reported worldwide, 194 have occurred near Somalia. As on date there are 15 vessels and 277 hostages held by pirates awaiting payment of ransom. Although naval forces from various countries have been deployed off the Horn of Africa (HOA), for the last three years, their presence has had only partial success. There is no doubt that naval ships have been successful in disrupting pirate attacks and have escorted many merchant ships to safety. Naval Special Forces deployed in the area have successfully rescued crew members from pirates, capturing a number of pirates in the process, who have been sent to jails in the captors’ countries. However their success in extracting ransom payments for captured ships has ensured that pirate gangs are never short of recruits. That the pirates have begun to see themselves in a patriotic mould is evident from names like National Volunteer Coast Guard and Somali Patriotic Movement adopted by pirate gangs.
SOMALIA’S IS A CLASSIC CASE WHERE SEA-PIRATES RUN VIRTUALLY UNCHECKED IN THE ABSENCE OF ANY FORM OF GOVERNMENTAL CONTROL. CIVIL WAR HAS RAGED FOR TWENTY YEARS AND THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT CONTROLS ONLY A SMALL PART OF TERRITORY AROUND THE CAPITAL WHILE THE COASTAL REGIONS REMAIN AUTONOMOUS.
Arming of merchant ships and other defensive measures like travelling in convoys has been debated at length, however the discussion has been complicated by the fact that a large number of ships fly flags of convenience to circumvent the regulations of the owner’s country and any political consensus on security is usually defeated, though it is reported that recently some such flag states have agreed on certain measures. The fact that even large merchant ships are sparsely manned and are unable to maintain continuous all round vigil, has further emboldened pirates to attack with impunity.
Owners of ships carrying inflammable or dangerous cargo have been understandably reluctant to allow armed guards on board due to the inherent risks involved with gunfire. There is also the issue of the effectiveness of one or two guards armed with rifles pitted against a number of pirates in speedboats armed with heavier weapons like rocket launchers that can punch a hole in a ship’s side. Arming of merchant ships always runs the risk of pirates raising the levels of violence which merchant ships will not be able to match. Further, there are legal issues involved in carrying automatic and military pattern weapons in the territorial waters of nations that do not permit them. The recent killing of Indian fishermen off the coast of Kerala, involving the Italian marines posted on board MV Enrico Lexie as anti-piracy guards, brought in another dimension of legal propriety,diplomacy and international relations, into an already complex situation.
Recent incidents of piracy have shown that Somali pirates are moving farther afield, away from their home coast right up to the Lakshadweep Islands. This could be an indication of the pressure applied by increased naval patrolling off the HOA, or could be increased boldness on their part. Either way, these actions spell trouble for India since interrogation of captured pirates has indicated a tie-up between the Somali Al Shabab militia and the LeT. There is also evidence that pirates have links with the Al Qaida. India’s stakes in the Offshore Development Areas in the Indian Ocean are extremely high and we can ill afford to let down our guard.
If we attempt to do the math, we shall see that the numbers keep piling up. Piracy has pushed up the cost of insurance premium for cargo transiting piracy prone areas. Merchant ships are forced to hire extra crew members to do lookout duty in their hitherto ignored stern sectors. Some have been forced to hire armed private security guards. Increased naval patrolling has driven up the operating costs of navies who have also been compelled to acquire additional craft to replace those now almost permanently engaged in antipiracy patrols. And still, all this is not enough.
OWNERS OF SHIPS CARRYING INFLAMMABLE OR DANGEROUS CARGO HAVE BEEN UNDERSTANDABLY RELUCTANT TO ALLOW ARMED GUARDS ON BOARD DUE TO THE INHERENT RISKS INVOLVED WITH GUNFIRE. THERE IS ALSO THE ISSUE OF THE EFFECTIVENESS OF ONE OR TWO GUARDS ARMED WITH RIFLES PITTED AGAINST A NUMBER OF PIRATES IN SPEEDBOATS ARMED WITH HEAVIER WEAPONS LIKE ROCKET LAUNCHERS THAT CAN PUNCH A HOLE IN A SHIP’S SIDE
The oceans of the world are simply too vast, the assets requiring protection far too many and widely dispersed, while the resources available at the disposal of governments are simply too few. Then there are the complex legal issues involved with providing security, for instance, for a ship that flies a flag of one nation, has an owner from another, carries a cargo exported by a third nation, bound for yet another country and manned by a crew that could be a mix of various nationalities. There is also the issue of disposal of captured pirates. The question of what is to be done with suspected pirates who may be observed at sea, but not actually engaged in acts of piracy, begs answering.
Although Somalia has reportedly permitted navies of some countries, including India, to enter their territorial waters in pursuit of pirates, most countries shy away from taking direct action within another country’s jurisdiction for fear of collateral casualties and thereafter getting involved in lawsuits and that country’s issues. Most countries would rather avoid the hostile tag that would almost certainly be applied to them, following their killing of another country’s citizens on their soil, in the course of what would probably be short term gains, since it opens up their own civilians to reprisal attacks.
IN AN INCREASINGLY COMMERCIALLY DRIVEN WORLD, WHERE THE THIRST FOR ENERGY PRODUCTS HAS FORCED COUNTRIES TO DEPEND ON SHIPS PLYING EXTENDED SUPPLY ROUTES, NATIONS ARE FORCED TO REGARD THE DEMANDS OF PIRATES AS MERE OPERATING COSTS
The similarity between piracy off the Horn of Africa and the Naxal problem in India is startling. Both are the result of economic exploitation of the peasantry. Police action in both cases has not been effective. Both groups see themselves in a righteous, ideological light and both have the potential for linking up with terrorist groups. Importantly, both prey on transport vehicles plying highways, albeit of different kinds. The solutions in one case may therefore also provide lessons for the other.
In an increasingly commercially driven world, where the thirst for energy products has forced countries to depend on ships plying extended supply routes, nations are forced to regard the demands of pirates as mere operating costs. Therefore while to some, piracy may appear to warrant military action, other countries lacking military wherewithal may simply work out a monetary arrangement. A lasting solution is however far more complex and lies somewhere between naval patrols, punitive legislative action, economic aid, enforcing respect for the territorial integrity and rights of a nation unable to do so and political and administrative strengthening of one of the most impoverished and dangerous nations on earth. This is easier said than done as the United Nations would have to display consensus and unity in action to a degreehigher than seen lately. Till then there is no option but to continue with naval patrols over vast stretches of ocean.
An flag officer of Electrical Branch, Commodore Sanjay Tewari ( Retd) writes under the pen name of Kris Tee. He retired most recently after nearly 32 years in the Indian Navy. He has authored two books for his service: “In The Wake Of The Swordfish – A history of INS Valsura and the Electrical Branch” and the “Through The Labyrinth Of History – A Journey Through 275 Years Of The Naval Dockyard At Mumbai”.