UN, industry want more aggressive action against Somali pirates

The United Nations has developed a new international "Action Plan" to combat escalating piracy off Somalia.

The plan announced in February by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon calls for improvements in ships' best-management practices to deter attacks and for better cooperation and coordination among navies patrolling the region. The UN wants to help African nations develop their own law enforcement and/or military capacity to deter piracy and punish offenders, step up political pressure to gain release of all hostages and support hijacked crewmembers and their families.

The plan comes as a result of the International Chamber of Commerce's International Maritime Bureau (IMB) report on hostage-taking at sea, which rose to record levels in 2010 for the fourth year in a row. Last year, pirates hijacked 53 ships with 1,181 seafarers and killed eight.

A boarding team from USS Chosin apprehends suspected pirates and searches their dhow for weapons in the Gulf of Aden in 2009. As Somali pirates have become more aggressive, the United Nations is calling for better naval cooperation and stiffer prosecutions. (Photo courtesy U.S. Navy)

Incidents in the Gulf of Aden dropped by more than half — to 53 from 117 in 2009. IMB attributed the decline to naval deterrence and ships' use of self-protection measures. But Somali pirates are now traveling farther afield, and their aggression has continued this year, most notably with the capture and murder of four Americans on a sailing yacht.

In reaction to the escalating piracy, the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), the principal international trade association for shipowners, in February modified its stance against private armed security guards.

ICS Chairman Spyros Polemis said, "In view of the current crisis in the Indian Ocean — with over 700 seafarers held hostage and, most recently, a seafarer being executed (on Beluga Nomination) — ship operators must be able to retain all possible options… Many shipping companies have concluded that arming ships is a necessary alternative to avoiding the Indian Ocean completely."

Shipowners and seafarers have teamed up to create the SOS Save Our Seafarers campaign to encourage people around the world to pressure their governments to crack down on piracy. The initiative was launched March 1 by the Baltic and International Maritime Council (BIMCO), ICS, International Shipping Federation, Intercargo, Intertanko and the International Transport Workers' Federation.

The campaign calls for governments to curb the activities of pirate motherships, authorize naval forces to detain pirates and deliver them for prosecution and punishment and fully criminalize all acts of piracy and intent to commit piracy. SOS wants an increase in naval assets in the region and greater protection and support for seafarers. It calls on governments to trace and prosecute the organizers and financiers behind the criminal networks. A website has been created for the campaign: www.saveourseafarers.com.

"It's time for governments across the world to take firm action against the pirates that attack and hijack our ships," BIMCO President Robert Lorenz-Meyer said. "The current practice of releasing apprehended pirates without trial is a disgrace to our seafarers and to the international conventions."

The new UN plan isn't winning kudos from most maritime security experts.

"It's a lot of the same rhetoric," said Kevin Doherty, owner of Alexandria, Va.-based Nexus Consulting Group.

"I'm not particularly sanguine about anything being done because the pirates have not had an unacceptable amount of pain inflicted upon them," said Ray Brown, a retired U.S. Coast Guard captain and consultant for Total Security Services International Inc. of Rockville, Md. "Even if they are apprehended, they often end up going free. The number of vessels taken has not reached unacceptable losses for the shipowners."

Brown said most of the crewmembers involved are from Third World nations that have not made an issue over the piracy. Unless the United States and Great Britain spearhead a major initiative "to take a large number of pirates and motherships out of the game permanently in a relatively concentrated period of time where they can't recover from their losses, we're going to have more of the same for years to come," Brown said.

"It looks like more talking and no new real action," said New York attorney Lawrence Rutkowski, who represented Industrial Shipping Enterprises Corp., the Connecticut-based owner of the pirated tanker MV Biscaglia that was released after $1 million in cash was dropped onto the deck of the ship by helicopter two years ago.

"I think they need to be extracting promises from the major marine powers to be more active in their interdiction efforts," Rutkowski said. "Building Somali infrastructure? Unrealistic at this point. Trying to build the infrastructure of neighboring states to be able to aid in the interdiction? I think that's kind of pie-in-the-sky too. They're going to have to bang heads."

James Christodoulou, chief executive of Industrial Shipping Enterprises, said there have been so many new plans that he can't keep track of them.

"Like a lot of UN and political resolutions, it's a lot of words. … There is probably a naval or military deterrent that could help to decrease or make it more difficult for pirate attacks," Christodoulou said. "But ultimately the solution needs to be addressed on land," possibly "by force to destroy the capacity of the pirates to attack ships. There's no political framework in Somalia" to allow the UN plan to work, he said.

"I think it would be helpful for insurance companies and classification societies and flag states to get together and uniformly impose standards for defenses, vessel characteristics — freeboard, speed and all that — and crew training," Christodoulou said. They should also make sure that ships that can't meet those best practices stay out of the area, he added.

Doherty said he was pleased that the plan includes more emphasis and money for strengthening the judicial systems in the Horn of Africa. He also was encouraged by the ICS's change of heart on armed security details, "which seems to be the only effective protective facet that's out there."

Capt. David B. Moskoff, a professor and assistant dean at the United States Merchant Marine Academy, believes the UN's plan is a positive step.

"Speaking for myself, I am encouraged by the action plan because it demonstrates IMO's commitment to improve upon the planning and activities that have proved successful," Moskoff said. "For merchant mariners, one of the plan's most important elements recognizes the critical role of the ship's crew. It is the crew themselves who must promote their own protection through the use of industry best-management practices together with other recommended measures."

Moskoff said he is also encouraged by construction of the first new prison in Somalia in 30 years. He hopes it will be used to detain pirates.

As the pirates have been forced away from the Somali coast farther out into the Indian Ocean, "it now requires even greater coordination and communication from the international community," Moskoff said. "The new plan seems to demonstrate that the international community is doing just that: optimizing and adapting coordination efforts in response to the new and evolving assault tactics."

By Professional Mariner Staff