Somali pirate on the coast of HobyoTell anyone you work in the shipping industry and the first thing they ask about is piracy. The huge flows of goods and trade around the world that move by sea and keep us all warm and fed and prosperous don’t register with most people. Piracy does, it sounds exciting – even glamorous. It isn’t.

What is piracy?

Piracy is simply armed robbery, extortion and kidnapping which takes place at sea. Pirates are simply criminals who try to steal things from ships, or steal the ship and cargo either for sale or ransom. It has always been a problem for unarmed merchant ships and their crews. At different times it flares up in different areas, such as off West Africa, around Indonesia, off the coasts of Brazil and Central America and most recently, off the coasts of Somalia.

Piracy never goes away and ships’ crews are always aware that they can be attacked at any time. Sometimes the pirates hold them at gun or knife point and simply steal the valuables of the crew. Sometimes they break into and steal part of the cargo. In West Africa they specialise in ransoming oil workers on offshore oil service ships. In Asia they have specialised in stealing the whole ship and cargo, selling the cargo and renaming the ship to use elsewhere. Off Somalia the pirates have built up a lucrative trade in kidnapping and ransoming ships, yachts and fishing boats.

Piracy statistics

Some numbers. There are about 50,000 merchant ships trading around the world and perhaps the same number of fishing vessels working internationally. Over 30,000 merchant ships and a very large number of fishing boats pass through the Gulf of Aden and close to the Somali coast each year.

Of all those potential targets there were 280 pirate attacks globally during 2012, out of which 27 ships were actually hijacked. Of the total attacks 71 took place close to Somalia of which 13 were successful. A total of 212 hostages were taken on the 13 successful hijacks. At the end of 2012 Somali pirates held 9 vessels with 147 crew as hostages.

In global terms it is not a big deal. That is why governments, shipowners and navies don’t pay much attention to piracy until it makes the global news. But for each crew member affected it is a personal tragedy, and for each shipowner who has a ship snatched it is an economic, reputational and personal nightmare.

Anti-piracy measures

What is done about piracy? Shipowners take out insurance against kidnap and ransom, although many, as in this book, rely on their general insurance cover. International shipowner groups have agreed on Best Management Practices, which help ships to secure themselves. Some, as in this book, just take a chance. The numbers are on their side.

Many shipowners now employ armed guards when their ships are in high risk areas. That has proven itself as the best deterrent, but it does sometimes lead to problems with arms and with shootings of innocent fishermen.

There is an international piracy reporting centre run by the ICC.

Naval deterrents

Navies can help, but not much. When piracy was very active in the region around Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia joint military and police action did control it. When Somali piracy escalated in 2002 from a few attempts to make foreign fishing boats pay for access to Somali waters into a full-blown criminal assault on passing shipping, it began to make world news. Many nations sent warships to the area. They have had some effect, but problems of co-ordination and the vast area to be policed mean they can never be the solution.

One big issue is legal jurisdiction. Unless the pirates are caught in the act and shoot back few navies will set out to engage the pirates. If they are caught then it is hard to prosecute them. And the complex nature of modern shipping means that it is hard to define a clear policy for navies to act.

Conflicts of interest

In the distant past ships were owned and flagged in the nations which were also the big trading states. Those states also had the big navies. There was a clear self interest in the navy protecting the ships and trade of its own nation.

Today the big trading nations such as the United States and Germany do not own or operate many ships. The ships belong to Greek, Chinese, Norwegian and Japanese owners. They are often flying the flag of Panama, Liberia, the Marshall Islands and Malta. None of these states have navies or are trading states.

So should a British Royal Navy frigate protect a Panamanian-registered ship owned by a Greek which is carrying a cargo sold by a Chinese company to a French importer and which just happens to be passing through the Gulf of Aden? And if they do act, under what law are they acting? Who will prosecute anyone they catch in the act?

It is not hard to see that conflicts of interest hamper direct action.

Somali piracy

In the case of Somalia, piracy started as a form of local self-policing of the Somali economic zone, and grew into outright criminality funded by gangs. It could continue because there was no law or infrastructure ashore to stop it. It was briefly interrupted when the Islamic Courts ran Somalia, but Western interests did not want an Islamic government in Somalia. They overturned that, which set the pirates free to act again.

Somali piracy is mostly low technology, opportunistic. There is no shortage of young men willing to risk their lives for potentially huge rewards. Many are lost at sea when bad weather or fuel and food shortages catch them out in their small boats. Some are shot or captured by navies or by armed guards. Many simply fail to find a target.

But some get through, and when they capture a ship they have a very valuable commodity to ransom, and to protect from other Somali gangs.

Piracy ransoms

In most cases the ship and cargo have very high values, many millions of dollars. The plight of the crew is overshadowed by this. They are simply pawns to put extra pressure on the owner and insurers to settle up. An industry has grown up of specialist insurers, security companies, lawyers and middlemen who negotiate with the pirates and deliver ransoms.

In most cases the sums are agreed quickly and the ships are freed. But in some cases either the owner is not insured or does not want to pay, or there are other difficulties. Then the ship can stay for a long time under guard. That pushes up the cost of keeping it for the pirates, which in turn makes a solution to the problem harder. The longer the ship is held the worse it gets for the crew and the incidence of violence against the crews rises.

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