How to fight piracy (and how not to)
September 27th, 2012
01:55 PM ET

How to fight piracy (and how not to)

By Urmila Venugopalan, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Urmila Venugopalan is the South Asia manager at Oceans Beyond Piracy. You can follow her on Twitter @Urmila_V and @OBPiracySAsia. The views expressed are her own.

Maritime piracy has long been considered the scourge of commercial shipping in the Indian Ocean. Recently, however, a combination of government- and private sector-led action has seen the number of pirate attacks in the region plunge to their lowest levels in almost five years.

This year’s statistics are unusually encouraging: the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) reported in July that Somali piracy activity fell by almost 60 percent, down from 163 incidents in the first half of 2011 to just 69 in the same period of this year. Somali pirates also hijacked only 13 ships, down from 21, according to the IMB.

Robust cooperation among international navies has certainly played a key role in driving this trend. Regular naval patrols – led by NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield, the EU’s Operation Atlanta, and Combined Task Force 151 – have undoubtedly disrupted several pirate attacks. China, India and Japan have also independently contributed to this effort – in a significant move at the start of this year, the three countries agreed to set aside their rivalries and coordinate their escort convoys in the Gulf of Aden.

The concentration of naval forces in this region has created a “ballooning” effect, forcing pirates in recent years to spread their reach eastwards. International counter-piracy missions have followed closely behind them, deploying well beyond their original area of operation in the Gulf of Aden and into the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. This expansion presents its own set of challenges; put simply, the seas are vast and the warships are few.

Oceans Beyond Piracy estimates that pirate activity covers an area four million square kilometers, roughly equivalent to one and a half times the size of mainland Europe. Maintaining regular patrols in an area of this size would require a significantly increased commitment of naval assets over an extended period of time. Against a backdrop of fiscal austerity and budget constraints, it has been – and will continue to be – all but impossible for governments to muster the resources to augment counter-piracy efforts.

So, just as nature abhors a vacuum, the private sector has moved quickly to fill the gap in a highly profitable market. Indeed, since 2011, the number of private armed guards on board commercial vessels has mushroomed. A new study by the Lowy Institute, for example, estimates that as many as 140 new companies, employing some 2,700 armed guards, have been established recently (the majority were set up last year) to meet surging market demand.

This stands in contrast to just two years ago, when both industry and government were wary of employing private security guards, viewing them as a liability, from a financial, legal and reputational perspective. Now, however, major commercial shipping associations, insurance companies, international bodies like the U.N.’s International Maritime Organization (IMO) as well as individual states, are legitimizing the practice of hiring private armed personnel on board vessels. Shipping companies, for example, are now spending about a billion dollars per year on these armed security guards, according to Oceans Beyond Piracy.

So what has prompted this shift in attitude? Cost is the key factor driving this change. Consider these figures: the average ransom at the end of 2011 was about $5 million and it took on average six months for this payment to be negotiated; a bulk carrier held hostage for this period of time lost about “$3.15 million in unrealized charter hire rates alone,” while the “excess costs of ships held hostage for months on end was potentially as large as $20 million,” according to Oceans Beyond Piracy.

Expenditure on private security therefore seems like a prudent investment. To date, not a single ship with privately armed contractors on board has been hijacked by pirates, a fact regularly touted by both industry executives and government officials, particularly U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Andrew J. Shapiro.

It’s no surprise then that the maritime security industry is booming. However, this rapid growth brings with it the need for regulation. Private contractors are not, obviously, serving military personnel, so there is no clear legal framework governing their rules of engagement. In many cases, on the high seas at least, they are the law. This is a reality that should worry every maritime stakeholder.

Greater oversight and transparency, especially from flag states, is critical. However, the stringency of their policies regarding the use of armed guards vary greatly. While there are ongoing efforts – by the shipping industry, governments, the IMO and even the private security sector itself – to create standards and rules, none of these are legally binding. Such a glaring absence of regulation also makes it very difficult for ship owners to discern between reputable companies offering private security and those unprofessional and less responsible outfits.

The hazy legal status of privately contracted armed guards is a particularly thorny dilemma for international lawyers. Part of the problem lies in the fact that shipping is by its very nature already one of the most globalized industries, a fact evident not only in the central role that it plays in facilitating international trade, but also by virtue of the dizzying array of actors involved.

A typical merchant vessel is, for example, registered in one country but owned, managed, operated and guarded by a series of disparate companies based in several other countries and which employ individuals of diverse nationalities. Who decides which jurisdiction’s laws should apply, when, and in what specific circumstances? And who should be held accountable for the actions of private armed guards operating in international waters? Often, the sheer number of national interests represented results in a reluctance for any one state to take a leading regulatory role.

As part of the growing militarization of the high seas, another alarming trend may be afoot: the potential rise of private navies. One publication, for example, reported a few months ago that a private navy, comprising a fleet of 18 ships, based in Djibouti, would offer to convoy merchant vessels along the shipping lane between the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea.

If current trends provide any indication, Somali pirate attacks may well continue to drop over the short to medium term. At the same time, however, the consequences of unregulated efforts by unaccountable private security enterprises may herald the emergence of another maritime security risk to those who make their livelihoods on the high seas.

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Topics: Conflict • Global • Military • NATO • Somalia

soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. 100 % ETHIO

    Their is no need to fight Piracy. Just pay them what they deserve.

    Remember, who was Piracy in Caribbean.

    September 27, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Reply
    • Isaac

      You must be a Muslim pirate. Pay them? Are you coocoo?

      September 27, 2012 at 8:41 pm | Reply
      • kim

        THERE MUST BE SOME BEHIND THE PIRATES.....THEY JUST BE USED AS INSTRUMENT........PHILOSOPHY...WILL PULL THEM OUT

        April 1, 2013 at 4:26 pm |
    • Isaac

      If i wasn't polite I would tell you what they deserve and where to put it.

      September 27, 2012 at 8:43 pm | Reply
      • kim

        PIRACY? WE HAVE GPS TECH....WE HAVE THE DRONES.....WE HAVE SENSORS AND RADA SYSTEEM....WE CAN DEFEND THE SHIPS JUST FROM THE GROUND STATION AS WE USE SATELLITE SURVAIALANCE EVERY BOAT COMING NEAR THE BIG SHIP WILL BE CALLED PIRATE BOAT ...AND GET FIRED

        April 1, 2013 at 4:17 pm |
  2. james

    This article lacks common sense. Forget the lawyers, etc. Let the shipping companies arm themselves and blow the pirates out of the water if need be.

    September 27, 2012 at 5:51 pm | Reply
  3. Klowiepowie

    THe Russian have an effective way to get rid of pirates. They shoot the boat. Why capture them? Another thing is, that trade ships that move in that area should be equiped with some heavy guns.

    September 28, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Reply
  4. rustin chrisco

    I've been wondering why piracy is not front page news as it was 3 years ago. It seems that arming the vessels has been effective, therefore to be taken out of the news. Shooting people who are robbing you discourages them. Rocket science to the left.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:40 am | Reply
  5. duckforcover

    The pirates are there because profits are high and the operations relatively safe. The area to be policed is beyond the scope of any deterant force. The only sensible answer is arming the individual ships. Lethal force is the only way to eliminate the threat. In other words, kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out!

    September 30, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Reply
  6. donthedragon8

    How to Handle Pirates?!?! That used to be common sense. Send them to Davey Jones' Locker.
    And whatever happened to "Don't negotiate with terrorists."?

    October 1, 2012 at 2:17 am | Reply
  7. Guest

    How do you deal with a pirate who pirates Pirates of the Caribbean?

    October 1, 2012 at 10:02 am | Reply
  8. BengieSB

    Dear Old People,

    Build the starving people a well and some schools so they dont have to risk lives on both sides pirating.

    Best,

    College Student

    October 24, 2012 at 12:47 am | Reply
  9. IRAN=SYRIA=IRAQ=EVIL=HIZBOALLAH=TERRORISTS

    FK IRAQ FK IRAN FK THE SHIIA IN SYRIA AND THOSE EVIL COUNTRIES , FK HIZBOALLAH./////THOSE IDIOTS THUGS SHIIA WHO MARRIED THERE COUSINS AND MAKE MOTAA WITH FEMALE CHILDREN ARE EVIL. USA SHOULD BE A SHAMED SITTING SILENT AGANIST 70.000 CEVILAINS THAT WERE KILLED BY THOSE SHIIA......USA AND NATO SHOULD GET RED OF THE SHIIA ASAD SYRIAN EVIL GOVERNMENT WHO IS HELPED BY IRAN AND IRAQ WITH RUSSIAN WEAPONS AND MONEY FROM OIL...WHY IS THIS SILENT ATTACK IRAN NOW. ISRAEL CAN HANDEL HIZBOALLAH TURKEY SHOULD GO AFTER SYRIA AND U SA AFTER IRAN GET RED OF EVIL BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE

    November 5, 2012 at 4:55 pm | Reply
    • kim

      SOME FORM THE BALTIC SEA IS GIVING THEM POWER....TAKE HOLD OF AFRICA....THEY WILL SHRINK LIKE A BALOON.....

      April 1, 2013 at 4:30 pm | Reply
    • kim

      IF RUSSIA AND CHINA DROOPS THEM .....NO FAR BOY U GET THEM

      April 1, 2013 at 4:56 pm | Reply
  10. kim

    THERE IS A TRAITOR......WHO USE PIRATE AS WEPON TO WIN OVER THE RIVAL....TAKE THE PIRATE. SEND THEM FAR ISLANDS...LIKE TONGA AND BARBADOS...THERE ASK THEM TO TELL YOU...THEY WLL....GIVE THEM GIFT ,,,THEY WILL TEL WHO SENDS THEM

    April 1, 2013 at 4:53 pm | Reply
  11. Robert Shellow

    The task in this industry seems really diverse.
    I do believe I'd take pleasure in working for a company carrying out casual work so that one day I might be doing event management and the next, being door security. The options are usually infinite, it appears.

    July 29, 2013 at 11:00 am | Reply

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