Better management practice rather than force the key to beating piracy

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Between 10% and 20% of owners, operators and managers, are continuing to put their ships and crews at risk of pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia by failing to follow industry guidelines on best management practice, the operational comander of the EU NAVFOR taskforce has warned.

Many were failing to adhere to minimum practice of registering vessels prior to transit at The Maritime Security Centre – Horn of Africa and in Dubai and in providing adequate lookouts, major general Buster Howes told a briefing at the International Chamber of Shipping in London. It meant the force, comprising 83 helicopter-equipped warships guaranteeing a 60-minute response, was being given as little as 10-minute warnings of attack. “Quite often it’s two minutes,” he said.

Invariably, most ships being “lifted” were not complying with best management practice. Some owners, he said, were being selective in their approach; some were disorganised, margins were modest and they were playing “chicken” and going for it. They were not sufficiently organised though he conceded it was a “cock-up” rather than conspiracy. He spoke of “an embuggerance”, namely a relatively minor problem, not the end of the world, but a problem the world would be better off without.

Major general Howes told the briefing some 16 vessels and 354 hostages were currently held. He insisted that piracy had to be fought through best management practice, incentives and a determination to prosecute offenders internationally rather than by naval force. In order to protect seafarers – the primary objective –a more aggressive posture had to be adopted towards pirates; their vessels had to be prevented from leaving shore. Shortfalls existed in the industry’s obligation to defend itself and comply to best practice and industry had to engage in open debate, he said.

He believed British flag vessels would undoubtedly be more secure if they carried British troops but the dearth of resources and manpower ruled this out. He dismissed as “Quixotic” the notion that appeals to governments for more ships could be made, particularly in these financially-straightened times.

“This is not a monetary issue; we cannot blanket-cover this area. We are enormously dependent on intelligence,” he said.

Private forces, he added, were worth examining “on merit” but they would be difficult to integrate and some unfortunate experiences with private security had made nations think again. Such action, he suggested, could provoke an arms race with pirates while owners and nations alike were extremely sceptical about arming crews.

Armed responses close to shore would present serious implications for seafarers so it was essential that legal porcesses had to be understood. “The appetite of the military community to engage militarily in Somalia is minimal, he said, insisting that the role of the Royal Navy was preventative rather than proactive.

His point was endorsed by rear admiral Hank Ort of the Royal Netherlands Navy and chief of staff Allied Maritime Component Command Northwood. “NATO has little appetite to engage miltarily ashore,” he said.

Rear admiral Ort insisted there was “not a single piece of evidence” that relations existed between the pirates and terrorists “though it would be logical”, that there was “little evidence of money leaving Somalia” and that and much would depend on the ability of the Somali government to deal with its own problem. “We have to break the vicious circle where we don’t trust them” he said.

He also conceded that not all flag states could be made to pay for naval protection but insisted: “This is clearly something and part of shipping industry responsibility. It has to be aware of it as it is in their economic interest.”

Major general Howes said the use of Citadels might buy time but vessels and crew “in the middle of nowhere with no miltary forces” to hand could provoke more violent actions by pirates. “If you can avoid [the use of Citadels] it’s a good tactic. There is tension onboard ship as it enters an area. Calibrating the use of a Citadel is difficult and the room has to be locdated so as to immobilise the ship so pirates cannot move it.”

The briefing was told that the industry was looking closely at issues of complicity in the payment of ransoms with Interpol and that companies were being made aware of the need to preserve crime scenes and evidence. Major general Howes again stressed the importance of the safety of seafares and insisted that industry wanted to retain the status quo of paying ransoms until a solution was found. There was no alternative to protecting lives, he said.

Chamber secretary general Peter Hinchcliffe reminded the briefing that owners were legally obliged not to pay ransoms if a terrorist link could be established. “It is comforting that current thinking is that there are no links,” he said.

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