The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) – the principal international trade association for ship owners representing all sectors and trades and over 80% of the world merchant fleet – has responded to the outcome of the intergovernmental conference on Somalia hosted by the UK on 23 February.
The shipping industry welcomes the commitments made to try to restore government and civil society in Somalia – the absence of a functioning state being one of the underlying causes of violent Somali pirate attacks against international shipping, which have so far led to more than 60 seafarers losing their lives and 4,000 seafarers being taken hostage. However, addressing these issues will take years if not decades.
The international shipping industry notes with some concern that the Conference outcomes do not appear to include any firm political commitment or new actions to eliminate or significantly reduce the scourge of Somali piracy in the immediate future.
Governments must task their military forces to take the attack to the pirates and ensure that the military assets required to do this are maintained so they can continue to defend merchant ships in the best way possible. Little mention seems to be have been made to the obligations of governments under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to protect merchant ships and their crews from piracy, and the industry fears that the current level of pirate attacks is something which the governments may be willing to continue to tolerate because ships are out of sight and out of mind, even though they transport about 90% of world trade.
Abdicating responsibility to private armed guards to whom, in the absence of adequate military protection, shipping companies are now resorting in increasing numbers, is not a viable long term solution for eliminating piracy. Recent press reports might give the impression that the level of piracy off Somalia is decreasing, but the capability of the pirates is actually higher than it has ever been.
The shipping industry strongly supports the Conference’s focus on the need for apprehended pirates to be arrested, taken to a court of law and, if found guilty, be imprisoned, including the announcement to establish a new Regional Anti-Piracy Prosecutions Intelligence Co-ordination Centre based in the Seychelles.
The shipping industry also welcomes the determination of governments to break the financial chain through legal action against criminal financiers investing in piracy wherever in the world they are identified. With respect to the latter, ICS notes the commitment to establish an ‘international task force on pirate ransoms in order to understand the ransom business cycle and how to break it.’
However, the shipping industry would be deeply concerned by any suggestion that the payment of ransoms to pirates, in order to secure the release of seafarers being held hostage, should be prohibited or criminalised.
The primary concern of the industry is humanitarian, and shipowners have a duty of care to their crews and their families. In the event that seafarers are taken hostage, the inability of the international community to eliminate piracy or rescue hostages means that shipowners have no option but to pay ransoms. The alternative would be for shipowners to abandon their crews to months if not years of appalling treatment – including torture and murder, which has already been the result when ransoms have not been paid.
In the event that ransom payments were prohibited or criminalised, many seafarers and shipping companies would understandably refuse to sail in the affected danger area, with significant implications for the large proportion of world trade, including about 40% of world oil shipments, which are transported via the Western Indian Ocean.
ICS strongly believes that effective compliance with Best Management Practices (preventive measures) by shipping companies, and recent military intervention with a more aggressive stance, has reduced the pirates’ rate of success. However, the current situation remains totally unacceptable, with about 200 seafarers still being held hostage in the most terrible conditions, with thousands more still having to transit the danger area in constant fear of their lives.
ICS will continue to work to ensure that the problem of piracy retains sufficient political and public attention so that the crisis might be properly and decisively addressed in the immediate future.