Piracy off the Horn of Africa has grabbed the headlines, disrupting trade, aid and even funding terrorism. Here, IMO Secretary General Efthimios Mitropoulos outlines new measures his organisation is taking to tackle this spiralling problem
Despite the fact that pirates have been a stock in trade of historians, novelists and poets alike for millennia, in real life there has never been anything romantic or nostalgic about piracy; and this has never been truer than today. Do not think of lovable rogues – as recently portrayed by Johnny_Depp.
Think, instead, of armed thugs, ready to attack, maim and even kill innocent seafarers, fishermen and passengers; ready to take, keep and terrorise hostages while demanding massive ransom payments; and ready, without compunction, to steal anything, including cargoes of humanitarian aid designed to alleviate hunger, even among their own countrymen.
Nowadays, piracy is a problem reaching massive proportions – a problem that can be, indeed is, damaging on several different levels. For those that may fall victim to an attack, the immediate danger to life and limb, the traumatic prospect of being held captive against a ransom demand and even the mental stress of having to sail, relatively unprotected, through known hot-spots, are things that no innocent civilian should have to face during their normal working lives.
On a broader front, the interruption of aid supplies to millions of hungry people; the potential for economic damage to the shipping industry; the likelihood of disruption to international trade; and, perhaps most worryingly of all, the possibility that the income from piracy might be used to fuel political unrest and fund insurgency and terrorism, are all reasons why this is a problem of global proportions.
Today, the deteriorating security situation in the seas off war-torn Somalia and in the increasingly volatile Gulf of Aden is at the heart of the problem. Not only have the criminals become more aggressive and violent but the nature of their attacks speaks of sophisticated organisation, both on the ground and in terms of logistical support and back up. We are now seeing many more examples of the hijacking and theft of a vessel and its cargo and, increasingly, the holding of the crew for ransom.
These crimes are, of necessity, planned well in advance, with ships often targeted for their high value and easily disposed-of cargo. The gangs are clearly well trained, well equipped and well prepared – and, maybe, even well informed.
For some time now, IMO has been working towards a collaborative, international approach to the problem of piracy off the coast of Somalia, which, from 1 January to 15 December 2008, for example, culminated in 40 ships being hijacked (out of 139 attacks) and over 600 seafarers being held hostage for ransom.
Indeed, IMO’s initiative on the Somali issue goes back to 2005, when a resolution, expressing the Organisation’s concern at the spiralling problem and appealing for action was adopted by the IMO Assembly, and conveyed to the UN Security Council.
On 2 June 2008, and in direct response to earlier requests of the IMO Assembly and Council, the Security Council adopted resolution_1816_(2008), authorising a series of decisive measures to combat acts of piracy and armed robbery against vessels off the coast of Somalia.
Through that resolution, the Security Council decided that, following consent from Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), States cooperating with the TFG would be allowed, for a period of six months, to enter the country’s territorial waters and use “all necessary means” to repress acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea, in a manner consistent with relevant provisions of international law.
“The international community must develop multilateral cooperation agreements to reduce the risk of unprovoked attacks on innocent merchant ships”
Yet, despite these, and other efforts, the situation continued to deteriorate, with new incidents being reported almost daily. In response, IMO has tackled the problem on a number of fronts in a concerted effort to achieve a threefold objective: ensure the protection of innocent seafarers; ensure the sustained flow of humanitarian aid into Somalia; and ensure that international trade continues to flow through the strategically important sea lane that is the Gulf of Aden.
One such front is IMO’s support to the countries of the Western Indian Ocean for the establishment and implementation of regional agreement to prevent, deter and suppress acts of piracy and armed robbery against ships.
The IMO convened a high-level meeting in Djibouti in January attended by 17 nations from the region which resulted in a Code of Conduct in which participants committed themselves to cooperating in the arrest, investigation and prosecution of persons who have committed piracy or are reasonably suspected of having committed piracy; seize suspect ships and the property on board such ships; and rescue ships, persons, and property subject to acts of piracy.
The Code of Conduct also covers the possibilities of shared operations, such as nominating law enforcement or other authorised officials to embark in the patrol ships or aircraft of another signatory.
We have also continued to bring the matter to the attention of the Security Council, which has agreed, through the adoption of resolution 1846 (2008), to extend the mandate referred to above for another 12 months, and to strengthen the Members’ resolve to stem the incidence of piracy and armed robbery off the coast of Somalia, including by “deploying naval vessels and military aircraft”, as well as “through seizure and disposition of boats, vessels, arms and other related equipment used in the commission of piracy and armed robbery, or for which there is reasonable ground for suspecting such use”.
The Security Council has since adopted resolution 1851 (2008), which introduces the concept of special arrangements among States permitting “shipriders” (or law enforcement officials) to be embarked on ships to facilitate the arrest and subsequent prosecution of suspected pirates. That resolution further envisages that, also for a period of 12_months and subject to consents, States may undertake all necessary measures that are appropriate in Somalia for the purpose of suppressing acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea.
As a result of the resolution, the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS) was established in January and recently held its first two Working Group meetings at IMO headquarters. The first looked at operational coordination and information-sharing, as well as the possible establishment of a regional coordination centre; the second meeting discussed developing the shipping industry’s self-awareness and self-defence capabilities.
The IMO, therefore, has played and will continue to play a pivotal part in efforts to promote an appropriate, coordinated international response to this most disconcerting situation in the troubled waters off Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden.
The international community must develop multilateral cooperation agreements to reduce the risk of unprovoked attacks on innocent merchant ships, including coordinated patrols in high-risk areas; information sharing; intelligence exchange; and hot pursuit following attacks.
However, it is equally important that the root causes of the problem are addressed promptly and comprehensively, involving the Somalis themselves in the first place, so that peace, stability, security and the conditions for sustainable development are re_instated in this much-troubled land, to the benefit of its long-suffering people.
Last year 40 ships were hijacked and over 600 seafarers were held hostage for ransom
IMO Secretary General Efthimios Mitropoulos