Thursday, 27 November 2014
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By Rt Hon John Spellar MP, Shadow Foreign Minister

Piracy is certainly not new. It has long historical antecedents - sometimes carried out by fairly random groups, sometimes effectively being State sponsored (Elizabethan privateers, the subjects of many swashbuckling movies, spring to mind).


Up until Somalia probably the most recent examples were the Straits of Malacca where robust joint action reduced the incidence dramatically although I recognise that the ability to respond on land was very important. So the main question is, is piracy like the poor who are always with us? In that sense does it matter in the great scheme of things? Is it sometimes treated as a cost of doing business that has to be borne like corruption in some countries, or particularly historically the risk of disease from operating in large areas of the world? So from the point of view of the industry can it just be factored in and discounted and passed on to the customer?

I don't think so. Firstly it is not a sustainable business model for the maritime industry, whose costs will continue to rise. The sums of money involved, the disparity of reward between scratching a living in coastal Somalia and a share of a ransom and the development of a sophisticated support structure, fuel the pirates' business model. But equally we cannot ignore the fate of the several hundred seafarers who are languishing in appalling conditions and sometimes risk receiving unacceptable treatment. It is clear that it is them rather than the cargoes that are the key to ransom payments.

Of course one of the paradoxes is that maybe the world's media would take a greater interest if the seafarers were nationals of the developed world rather than from the poor Asian countries such as Thailand, Philippines and Sri Lanka. It is interesting how the media has started to respond to the seizure of tourists from the Kenyan coast. It reflects pretty badly on us if we pass by on the other side both as countries and the industry and ignore their fate.

However, apart from that the situation is not stable or sustainable. 

While it is true that the number of ships being held to ransom have declined over the last few months, this no doubt arises from the payment of very considerable ransoms to free some ships and will undoubtedly encourage a further wave of piracy. We should also be aware of the dramatic impact of piracy on the economies in the region. Obviously the seizure of tourists will seriously affect Kenya's coastal resorts, and we have seen their robust response, but even before then there had been a dramatic impact on the cruise liner business. When we met the Kenyan Government in July they told us that in the first 6 months of 2010, 60 cruise ships had visited Mombasa. In 2011, only 1 had been there, incidentally a SAGA cruise, tough lot that older generation.

We are also clearly seeing an evolution of the activities of the pirates. Examples are multi directional attacks on vessels; the increasing use of the mother ships further out into the vastness of the Indian Ocean and indeed off the coast of Oman;and the use of informants in the Gulf and on the coast of the Arabian Peninsula possibly further afield, in order to direct the activities of the pirates. This is an increasingly developed network. There is a carefully constructed reward structure and even the availability of start up finance for youngsters who will actually undertake the raids (as evidenced by a copy of an agreement seized by UK forces) and a greater willingness to use significant fire power Inevitably any current discussion is going to focus on piracy arising from the coast of Somalia although we should not be unaware of or indifferent to lower level piracy in the China Sea and more recently in the worrying increase in the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa. However, the current epicentre is clearly the Somali Coast.

Focusing on Somalia, what are the key issues:-

1. It is close to a major world artery going into the Suez Canal carrying oil and goods which otherwise have to take a very long journey around the Cape in order to get to Europe. 26,000 ships a year, a billion dollars worth of trade, a key part of the world's supply chain. After the tsunami hit Japan and particularly Fukishima the impact on British car plants and not just the Japanese owned ones was substantial. Also in this context we should not underestimate the importance of canal dues to the fragile Egyptian economy - £2.5 billion in the first half of this year alone, hard currency, serious cash flow.

2. A considerable level of costs, the rising rates of insurance, costs of providing protection either static or human on board vessels and also the reaction of seafarers, including the possible risk of a boycott. All these end up on the bill of the final customer, the consumers round the world.

3. And of course the situation is not static. Like all situations involving insurgency or terrorism the threat evolves and so does the response. We have had naval protection for food aid ships have resulted in no vessels being seized, so convoying has had some effect. However, this has required the co-operation of ship-owners and more broadly this has not always been forthcoming from some of the smaller, more fringe, operators. So have the installation of non-lethal deterrent devices on vessels and also the presence of armed guards.

However,  these all carry additional costs and also risks. The international community and ship-owners also have to be clear about who they are hiring, are they reliable, safe, even dare I say it, honest. Should guards only be hired through reputable companies, should there be an international register and which organisation will take responsibility for organising what responsibility will the flag ship states take for ensuring compliance? What provisions of international law and Rules of Engagement will they operate under and who will write and enforce them?

What of the response ? There has been some toughening of the reaction of navies, but has this been insufficient given the constraints on defence expenditure in all main economies. We must also recognise the vast areas to be covered once pirate vessels get beyond coastal waters. Which countries are in a position to provide equipment and personnel? What is the role of maritime patrol aircraft or indeed drones which increasingly operates elsewhere in the region? Are Rules of Engagements sufficiently robust to enable navies or marine forces to interdict boats and prevent the pirates from operating? In particular do they have enough powers to effectively deal with pirate equipment on shore and to prevent them moving out beyond a defined limit? Should the international posture be more forward, learning rather than reactive?

Of course individual countries and naval forces will be responsible for issuing their own Rules of Engagement, but they should do this within the framework of either a coalition policy or a mandate from the United Nations Security Council. And we should recognise that all the P5 members of the Security Council have a real concern and real interest in tackling Somalia piracy. Has sufficient action been taken in order to provide this? I pay tribute to the work done by the junior Foreign Office Minister, Henry Bellingham, and I commend his statement of 12th October 2011, but with no disrespect suggest this has to be taken up at a more senior level.

We must also be, to paraphrase, the words of the Tony Blair "tough on piracy and tough on the causes of privacy." Undoubtedly one of the factors leading to an increase in piracy has been the fishing out of many of the stocks off the coast of Somalia by overseas factory ships. What action could the worlds navies take while preventing pirates coming into the ocean to also prevent such fleets from eliminating the fish stocks of the region?

We need a clear direction from the international community, backed up by a tough resolution from the UN Security Council. That must in turn be backed up by a reinforced level of naval and other military resource operating under more robust Rules of Engagement. Such a military effort has to be matched by effective aid programmes to reinforce responsible authorities on land and alternative economic opportunities for the people. We recognise that this is a pretty ambitious programme with a price tag attached. But realism accepts that piracy is already posing considerable costs on the world's economy and has the potential to cost a good deal more.

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