By Naveed Ahmed

In June 2011, MV SUEZ a merchant ship captained by a Pakistani Master with a multi-national crew onboard was released after paying a very hefty ransom collected by Pakistani philanthropists. These days we are again seeing a déjà vu of the same episode. TV channels in their prime time shows are presenting wailing and aggrieved families of crew MV ALBEDO hijacked by the Somali pirates pleading for donation to pay a colossal ransom(160 million rupees which is about half of the total ransom money)  for release of their loved ones. So what is the issue? Why lightly armed pirates have put the global shipping industry hostage and no body can do anything about it? Why, with all the modern gadgetry we cannot track and intercept a ship which has sent an SOS and we precisely know its position. Then the ship travels another 1000 miles to anchor off Somalian coast and ransom talks continue for as long as 17 months. What is the response of international community? What are Pakistan and our Navy doing about it? Why are they talking of Indian navy viz a Pakistani crew of hijacked ship. All these questions are pertinent and logical and need to be answered.        

1.         Firstly, the problem and the solution lie on land rather than at sea, because Somalia has become a failed state with no central government. Each clan is controlling an area; particularly in case of piracy, close to the coast. There are big and influential war lords who control this industry with big networks in London and Dubai negotiating on their behalf making millions of dollars. Reportedly typical ransom which started as 150000 $ in 2009 is now touching about 4.5 million $ per ship, is souring by the day.

2.         The response of International community to the challenge piracy is at sea is overwhelming whereby a Combined task Force under USA called CTF 151 (Combined Task Force), established since 2009, is patrolling the Gulf of Aden. In addition, European Union led by France and Germany are providing escort for ships going to Somalia for humanitarian aid under EUNAVFOR(EU Naval Forces), non availability of escort ships from this force resulted in suspension of aid to Somalian population. Another NATO led group called SMG2 comprising ships from NATO countries is also operating in unison. Similarly, Indian, Chinese, Thai, South Korean, Japanese and Russian warships are also patrolling pirate infested areas independently as they probably are not comfortable directly under US led coalitions for political reasons. In all, at least 30 warships from various countries are participating in combating pirates at sea at a given point in time.

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3.         United Nations under article 1851 of Security Council has authorised use of force against pirates and authorises actions even within the territorial limits of Somalia (12 miles from Somalia coast) where most of the hijacked ships are anchored for months on, under the watchful eyes of their captors.

4.         Then what is the issue? The issue is more complex because the US; which is generally accepted as guarantor of free and safe passage of trade and goods at sea on a global scale is not interested to get involved once again in Somalia because of the bitter experience of the earlier intervention of the famous ‘Black hawk down’ episode when the bodies of US soldiers were mutilated in the streets of Mogadishu in 1994, capital of Somalia.

5.         Then is the issue of international law which does not sufficiently cover this complex phenomenon. Though relevant articles of UNCLOS 1982 (United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea 1982, articles 101 to 107) cover piracy and binds all states to cooperate to fullest possible extent in the repression of piracy on high seas. Notwithstanding the aforesaid, consider a typical situation, when a ship belonging to one country registered in another distant and obscure country like Panama or Monrovia (for saving taxes) carrying cargo of yet a third country which is manned by a multinational crew from various countries (e.g. Philippines, Pakistan India, Bangladesh etc) is hijacked in international waters by Somalian pirates (yet another nationality). Consequently a warship belonging to another country e.g. USA or UK intercepts the pirate boat, so what do we do with pirates? How are they to tried, where would they be tried and under which law? And in case during the interception, if a crew member of the warship dies or pirates are killed, who will bear the political and resultant costs?  Therefore in most interceptions by navies the pirates are released after disarming them.

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6.         In case a pirate is taken onboard the warship than he can claim asylum as warships are considered as territory of that nation and all laws of the land apply across the board. Thus pirates are generally not captured onboard warships. UK and USA have managed to pursue the Kenyan authorities for enacting laws to prosecute the pirates but it is still a lengthy and cumbersome process which no one wants to get involved with.

7.         What is our navy doing about it? Unfortunately very few people actually realise the kind of effort a small navy like ours with limited resources is doing. Pakistan Navy in concert with other navies of the region is part of the response of the international community. Pakistan Navy is part of CTF 151(international coalition) since its inception in 2009 and the navy provides one ship on a regular basis for counter piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden. In addition, our navy has commanded anti piracy forces for the second time, last being completed in January this year.

8.         Though many measures have put in to practice with the cooperation shipping industry called BMPs (Best management Practices). Of all the measures adopted eg meshed wires and water jets to repulse the pirates; the most effective by far has been  the placing of armed guards on merchant ships traversing pirate infested areas; no ship with armed guards has ever been hijacked. However, the shipping industry is very averse to having explosives onboard ships particularly those carrying highly sensitive cargo like LNG and chemicals, which in any case can get severely damaged in case of an armed exchange between the pirates and armed guards. In addition, some state laws do not permit ships with explosives to enter in their harbors. In any case, more and more shipping companies are now hiring private armed guards which results in extra expenditure to the shipping companies.

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9.         The international navies as mentioned earlier are cooperating very closely at sea though being of different nationalities for a common cause. In order to dissuade the pirates from attacking ships traversing Gulf of Aden the coalition navies with the cooperation of other stakeholders have established IRTC(Internationally Recognised Transit Corridor). This is the corridor where most naval ships operate and provide safe passage to shipping traversing the most vulnerable area viz pirates. Pakistan Navy ships are also deployed in this corridor forming part of international response to piracy.

10.       The solution to the issue is to resolve it on land by establishing some sort of governance or mechanism to deny safe havens to pirate anchorages and their hideouts on the shores of Somalia. This is a very difficult preposition; to restore normalcy in a country fragmented by internal strife and controlled by clan chieftains. Unfortunately Somalia is a muslin country and thus more sensitivities are attached to it particularly viz Global War on Terror. The lesson learnt is that if you let a problem simmer and shy away from resolving it then you have to pay a very heavy price and it takes ages to bring normalcy to that country. Afghanistan and Somalia are cases in point where international community has shied away from a long term solution. Piracy has been an age old phenomenon with its roots on land and incidentally there are no quick fix solutions for the time being.