Colombo, March 19 (newsin.asia): If the seizure of an oil tanker by Somalian pirates in the Horn of Africa last Monday after a gap of five years has any message for the world, it is that there is no room for complacency in regard to piracy.
The incident shows that the international community cannot rest on its oars thinking that putting in place international alliances to police the vulnerable areas will itself curb piracy.
The existing literature and practical wisdom on piracy reveal that it is bound to re-surface in the absence of a holistic approach which should include political, economic, military, administrative and financial parameters.
For the pirates and their network, piracy had been a very lucrative business. It had extracted from the world US$ 6 to 7 billion between 2008 and 2012.
A week ago (Monday March 13), the world was rudely shaken off its reverie when news about Somalian pirates seizing the bunkering tanker Aris 13 while it was sailing from Djibouti to Mogadishu, came over the wire services. Flying the Comoros flag, the 1188 ton tanker was owned by a company based in Fujairah in the UAE. Sri Lanka was particularly concerned because the vessel’s crew of eight was entirely Sri Lankan.
Panic struck Sri Lankans when the crew called their families to say that troops of the Puntland autonomous region of Somalia were firing on the ship in order to frighten the ransom-demanding pirates. The crew said that if the firing was not stopped forthwith, the oil laden ship would turn into an inferno.
While the shipping company in the UAE was negotiating with the pirates, the Sri Lankan government got in touch with the United States Ambassador in Colombo, Atul Keshap, and the 41-nation Combined Maritime Force led by an American Admiral based in the UAE, to use their contacts to call off the firing and release the hapless crew.
The US, which had a ship and personnel from the Seventh Fleet in Hambantota at that time carrying out a joint exercise with the Sri Lankan navy, got the President of the Puntland autonomous region of Somalia to intervene. The nail biting drama ended late on Thursday, with the Puntland President sending a WhatsApp message to the Sri Lankan Deputy Foreign Minister Harsha de Silva to say that the crew and the ship were being released without ransom.
Reasons for the Incident
Maritime security experts have various explanations for the recurrence of piracy in the Horn of Africa. Some are logical, while others are speculative. Some say that the ship was seized and released at the instance of the US to get Sri Lanka on board its maritime security plans in the Western Indian Ocean where the Chinese are expected to be active with ports under their control such as Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Gwadar in Pakistan. They are intrigued by the smooth release of the ship and the crew without ransom.
The other conspiracy theory is that the seizure could have been the brainchild of the maritime security companies, which have lost millions of dollars of business as a result of the end of piracy in 2012. Multilateral naval cooperation and provision of naval escorts to ships had reduced the demand for Sea Marshals provided by private maritime security companies. Charging US$ 200 to 300 dollars per day per man, the Sea Marshals do not come cheap. And each voyage has to have at least four Marshals if not eight.
The other reasons given for the attempted piracy was that the ship owners had not given the customary periodic under the counter payments (called Kappang in SriLanka) to the Somalian piracy mafia. International media said that the pirates released the ship and the crew tamely when they learnt that the vessel had been hired by Somalian merchants who they dared not alienate given the close nexus between the Somalian business community ,the Somalian State, and the pirates’ mafia.
While conspiracy theories are attractive, the phenomenon has to be looked at through the lens of objective conditions, said Adm.Dr.Jayanath Colombage, a retired chief of the Sri Lankan navy and a scholar.
“The roots of piracy are on land and not at sea. The sea is where piracy takes place but its stems from conditions on land, “ Adm.Colombage said.
“Piracy is basically big business with international links as well as local political, official and business connections. Intelligence gathering is done internationally through agents, and the money collected is shared as per set systems spread across borders. The boats, weapons and the men are hired and trained professionally. The actual pirate himself gets only the crumbs. It is the big fish on land who get the lion’s share. Therefore any attempt to curb piracy has to be done not only at sea but on land too, he explained.
He pointed to the importance of political and economic conditions on land in the resurgence of or decline in piracy. There is political confusion in Somalia and in its Puntland autonomous region which has a direct bearing on piracy. Piracy is nothing but a crime which, like all crimes, thrives under political confusion, absence of a firm and normative administrative system, lawlessness, corruption and violence.
Following the February elections in Somalia, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed took over as President, but the opposition Al Shabaab group has threatened to eliminate anybody cooperating with the regime. Al Sshabaab had assassinated the National Intelligence Agency chief. It has cashed with the Somalian National Army. Most of the pirates‘ bases are in Somalia but most of the pirates hail from the Puntland autonomous region.
In Puntland, the regime is opposed by a pro-ISIS Islamic group which has been beheading its opponents in the classic ISIS style. Somalia’s experiment with a federal structure is also complicating matters as the provinces of Galmudug and Puntland battle it out over rights. While lawlessness reigns, the UN has warned that Somalia is heading towards famine.
To this, Adm.Colombage adds the devastation caused by international fishing off the coast of Somalia. This has denied Somalian fishermen their livelihood and driven into the arms of pirate recruiters. In the Malacca Straits, the dumping of waste by ships has polluted the sea so much that local fishermen do not get the kind of catch they got before the shipping lanes got congested by traffic.
In so far as the international maritime security system is concerned, cooperation is critically dependent on certain crucial factors. Smaller littoral nations cannot be asked to bear the financial burden when piracy does not affect them as much as it affects the rich trading nations. The international Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against Safety of Maritime Navigation, covers terrorism but not piracy. There are also no rules for the prosecution and jailing of captured pirates with the result, captured pirates are let off. Cases cannot be taken to the International Criminal Court as there are issues of jurisdiction plaguing the ICC.
Another reason for a possible re-appearance of piracy is the financial burden that maritime security casts on the shipping lines. Engaging Sea Marshals may cost US$ 20,000 to US$ 25,000 per voyage. The Sri Lankan naval spokesman, Lt.Commander CRP Walakuluge, pointed out Aris 13 seemed to be waiting to be high jacked as it had no Sea Marshals on board; was a slow vessel going at an average speed of 5 knots; and was hugging the coast rather going through the open sea to save fuel.
Adding to this Adm. Colombage said that shipping companies often do a calculation to see the statistical probability of a vessel being hijacked, and fix the security systems accordingly.
“It’s all question of money,” he remarked.
(The featured image shows a Sea Marshal taking aim)