Clay Maitland

On a quest for quality in shipping

Changing the Rules of Engagement

Posted on | March 26, 2012 | No Comments

Piracy is expanding to West Africa; nine attacks were reported in February, double the number in the month before. Piracy is also well-entrenched in Southeast Asia, which recorded 31.5% of all incidents worldwide over the past twelve months to the end of January.

This blogspot has said – repeatedly- that a rethink, and to some extent a new approach, will be needed if pirate attacks are to be contained, not to say reduced. The “business model” now employed by pirate gangs is relatively low-risk and is sufficiently remunerative to, at least, its leaders, that it is likely to spread into new areas, such as parts of coastal South America.

Whatever it is that we are now doing — “best practices”, the presence of armed and unarmed security teams embarked aboard ship, and various talking shops: Working Groups 1 and 3 of the Contact Group for Piracy Off the Coast of Somalia and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s Counter-Piracy Programme, to name a few, the frequency and geographical area of this brutal affliction hasn’t been significantly affected. The type of thuggery now occurring with growing frequency off the Nigerian coast, some of it 110 miles offshore, is significantly more violent than the Somali variety.

The result: the vulnerability of modern merchant ships is now clear, and “best practices”, while an effective defence strategy in most cases, is not a remedy for the rising tide of violence. It is clear that an international convention on the suppression of piracy is essential.

Why? The much-discussed solution, a return to the rule of law in Somalia, and elsewhere in Africa where pirates lurk, is unlikely for many years to come.

Moreover, we need a proper court or tribunal for the trial — and subsequent imprisonment — of pirates. Various “solutions”, such as trial in the Seychelles, or some other African venue, are no solutions at all, for a plague that now is spreading to other parts of the world. A convention would establish a court of global jurisdiction based on the pattern of the International Criminal Court (the Hague Tribunal).

The navies now charged with duty off the coast of Somalia, and probably elsewhere, are hobbled by so-called rules of engagement that are in many ways inappropriate or ineffective. A comprehensive international convention would impose a framework of agreed-upon law, that would eliminate many of the inadequacies and ambiguities, including those surrounding the practice known as “catch-and-release”. Such a convention would define, hopefully with some precision,
the rights and wrongs of what is, after all, a military confrontation in the first place.

It is remarkable that war crimes committed in, say, Bosnia or Sierra Leone, are within the jurisdiction of a court of justice, in the Hague, set up under an intergovernmental agreement. In addition, governments have mustered the will to suppress international money-laundering, human trafficking, the arms and narcotics traffic, and of course terrorism. For a number of reasons, the growing scourge of piracy is being “handled” in a way reminiscent of the opening scene of “The Pirates of Penzance”. We seem to want to do as little as possible, while pretending to
be greatly concerned.

A convention on the suppression of piracy could (repeat, could) allow for the payment of ransoms. Right now, each government is free to allow or prohibit the ransoming of hostages.

Everyone seems to be willing to jog along with this state of affairs, except the hapless seafarers.

Several hundred crew are currently being held under terrible conditions. And, as piracy expands, it is clear that some of its practitioners, as in West Africa, are not interested in ransom negotiations, but are “just” robbers and hijackers. This puts the lives of the crew at greater risk than before.

Many observers say that it is only a matter of time until a major incident occurs; maybe one involving a cruise ship. If that happens, we may see a significant escalation of violence. Before we embrace such an increased militarisation, wouldn’t a comprehensive agreement on how piracy — and pirates — are to be dealt with make better sense?

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