Pirate Tales, the conclusion
When it comes to pirate abductions, what are the most dangerous waters for kidnapping? Those off Somalia, where 241 civilians were grabbed last year by what the International Maritime Bureau’s Pottengal Mukundan describes as four distinct gangs based in that strife-riddled nation. The group believed to have been behind the attack on the Seabourn Spirit also has been linked to the hijacking of several United Nations-chartered vessels last year.
In one notable incident, the freighter MV Semlow was carrying 850 tonnes of food aid for Somali victims of the tsunami disaster when pirates boarded and overpowered the 10-member crew. The attackers diverted the ship to the coastal town of Harardhere and demanded a half million dollars in ransom. At one point, the pirates actually forced the crew to sail their vessel out to sea, so a second freighter could be hijacked. It wasn’t until October, a hundred days after the attack, that the Semlow and her crew were freed. (The food aid was left untouched by the gang and eventually distributed by the UN.)
The Semlow’s location was anything hardly a state secret, so why was there no military rescue operation? Fears for the crew’s safety is an obvious concern, but using armed force to combat piracy raises the issue of national sovereignty, even in a lawless place like Somalia. It may come as a surprise but, statistically, most pirate attacks occur while vessels are anchored in ports or while sailing within someone’s territorial waters — that is, no farther than 12 nautical miles from shore.
Even when sovereignty isn’t an obstacle, might doesn’t always make right. In April, when another gang of Somali pirates hijacked a South Korean trawler in international waters, two naval were in the vicinity and heard the fishermen radio that they were being attacked. The destroyer USS Roosevelt and a Dutch frigate called the Zeven Provincien intercepted the trawler, and fired warning shots in an attempt to stop it from reaching Somali waters. But as soon as the naval vessels saw the pirates threatening the Korean crew with weapons, they were forced to give up the chase.
Luxury liners, humanitarian relief ships, oil tankers, private yachts, fishing boats — no one is immune to the pirate threat. At this very moment, someone somewhere is being attacked on the high seas.
Fighting back is difficult, but the International Maritime Board, along with other groups, such as the UN’s International Maritime Organization, has been working on a long-range plan to cope with the epidemic. They began by establishing a means of tallying incidents, to identify the most dangerous areas for seafarers. As Mr. Mukundan notes, “Piracy takes place in countries where you have economic problems and a weak maritime law-enforcement infrastructure...countries like Somalia, where you have no national government and no law enforcement on a national basis.”
Armed with this information, the IMB is now working to raise awareness of the issue because most insiders feel the best deterrent is not having gunships patrol the oceans but persuading governments to take action within their own borders. And there have been some signs of progress.
Mr. Mukundan points to recent measures taken by Indonesia and China. In the late nineties, he says, both countries were struggling with pirate attacks along their coasts but lacked any effective policy to deal with the problem.0
“The southern coast of China was a well-known haven for people who hijacked ships and sold their cargoes. And then the Chinese acted, after a case where 23 Chinese crew members were murdered brutally on their ship. Overnight, the south coast of China stopped becoming a haven.”
Similarly, the Indonesian navy has taken a much more forceful posture in recent years, especially within the Straits of Malacca. Since the killing of the Cherry 201’s crew, Indonesia has increased it naval resources, bolstering the efforts of neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore to control maritime crime and significantly reducing the number of pirate attacks in the Straits.
Interestingly, the Indonesian forces may have been helped by the effects of the tsunami, which is thought to have sunk a number of pirate vessels in Aceh province. Whether these pirate gangs will return to action remains to be seen.
Few observers expect piracy to fade in the foreseeable future. Some liken it to a maritime Cold War, a low-level conflict that will simmer away, decreasing in one area only to reappear somewhere else. As long as there is poverty and lawlessness in any coastal region, the sight of passing vessels on the horizon will remain a source of temptation. And for those who go to sea today, it has become an unfortunate part of their daily lives and the cost of doing business.
“Many seafarers who survive these attacks, the serious attacks, probably will not go back to sea again,” Mr. Mukundan says. “They’ve given up the life at sea because the experience is very traumatic.
“You must remember that a ship is a person’s home; it is more than a place where you go to work. And when people invade at night and take it over, the crew members know that no one is going to come to their assistance while the pirates are on board.
“I don’t think it should be the cost of doing business.”
The International Maritime Bureau maintains a weekly website with weekly piracy reports that may be viewed here.