Ship owners are stepping up pressure on governments world-wide to take a stronger role in policing the waters off Somalia and prosecuting hijackers, saying lax enforcement is encouraging attacks and helping pirates extend their operations farther into the Indian Ocean.
Piracy hit an all-time high in the first three months of 2011, with 142 attacks world-wide, up from 67 a year earlier, according to statistics from the International Maritime Bureau, a non-profit organization set up to counter maritime crime. The sharp increase was led by a surge in hijackings off the coast of Somalia, where 97 attacks were recorded in the first quarter of 2011, up from 35 in the comparable period last year.
“National governments hold the key to resolving this crisis. Their brief to the naval forces has, in most cases, been simply to deter and disrupt unless it involves a national interest,” said Graham Westgarth, president of Teekay Marine Services, a unit of Teekay Corp., the world’s largest owner of medium-sized crude oil tankers. “Prosecution is vital. Even when caught red-handed by naval forces, 80% of pirates are released again to attack,” Mr. Westgarth adds, citing figures compiled by the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners, or Intertanko.
Since March 31, Somali pirates have taken a further 30 vessels for ransom, holding 588 crew members of varying nationalities as hostage, according to the IMB.
Ship owners also point to increasing cases of torture and execution of hostages. Earlier this year, Somali pirates shot and killed four American hostages on a 58-foot yacht seized in the Arabian Sea. In the first quarter of 2011, seven hostages were killed, according to IMB data. In contrast, no hostages were killed in the year-earlier period.
Ship owners also say that the threat of piracy has increased voyage times, as ships use safer, but significantly longer, routes. About 40% of the world’s oil supply is shipped through the Indian Ocean, an area where Somali pirates are dramatically increasing their presence.
“Vessels now sail from the Arabian Gulf, then very close to coast of India before they go around Africa,” said Richard Arnesen, Head of Tankers at Oslo-based oil shipping broker Imarex Asa. “It’s adding an extra four to five days in voyage times, but it’s safer than sailing straight down the Indian Ocean,” he said.
More than 20 naval vessels now patrol the coast of Somalia as part of multinational coalition established in December 2008. The flotilla includes ships from the EU, U.S. and NATO, as well China and Russia. But ship owners and brokers question its effectiveness, saying governments are reluctant to take captured pirates to their countries for trial because failure to convict could open the door to claims for asylum.
“Especially in the European Union, it’s clear that governments do not wish to prosecute pirates in the fear that a failure to convict will open the floodgates for asylum claims into the country under question,” said a shipping industry executive who asked not to be identified.
Recent cases highlight the difficulty putting pirates on trial. In April, the European Union Naval Force Somalia, or EU Navfor, returned 18 suspected pirates to Somalia, after its requests to three states considered to have an interest in the case proved unsuccessful. “The states either decided not to prosecute or could not provide intent to prosecute within the required timescale,” EU Navfor said.
The pirates were detained by Finnish warship FNS Pohjanmaa April 6, after they hijacked the Singapore-flagged vessel MV Pacific Opal April 5 in the North Arabian Sea, about 500 kilometers east of Salalah, Oman. The states that were offered a chance to prosecute were Finland, Singapore and Kenya. All three governments declined to comment on the situation.
“The shipping community feels that the countries where the hijacked vessels are registered or the country involved in the detention of pirates, should be taking a lot more responsibility in the prosecution procedure,” said Bill Box, spokesman for Intertanko.
Under international maritime law and United Nations Security Council resolutions on piracy, all states have the jurisdiction to prosecute people suspected of involvement in piracy. And under article 105 of the U.N. convention on the Law of the Sea, a state that has seized suspected pirates has the right to prosecute them. Generally, the next state to be contacted is the flag state of the attacked vessel. The crew members’ or ship owner’s country can also be asked to prosecute.
With the Pacific Opal pirates, “there was no state willing to prosecute the pirates, and as EU Navfor cannot detain the pirates indefinitely, as this is in breach of the regulations of the European Convention on Human Rights, so we decided to release the pirates,” EU Navfor spokesman Paddy O’Kennedy said.
In another case, the U.K. Royal Navy frigate HMS Cornwall’s capture of 17 Somali pirates aboard a hijacked vessel in the Indian Ocean Feb. 15 stirred controversy after the director of the Public Prosecutions Service instructed the navy to return the offenders to Somalia.
“We support the wishes of the countries [such as Somalia] to prosecute and imprison pirates in the region, and we are helping them to do so,” a spokeswoman for the U.K. Foreign Office said. She declined to comment on the issue of asylum.
But a trial in Somalia is extremely unlikely—the central government has little control outside the capital, Mogadishu.
In the face of increasingly brazen attacks and little hope of a law-enforcement crackdown, ship owners say they have no option but to pay more ransom to free crews and retrieve ships, which in turn encourages more piracy.
“We cannot let the shipping trade cope alone with piracy by ransom pay outs, which merely encourage further acts of piracy. But if governments do not intervene, what choice to do shippers have to recover hijacked vessels and crew members?” said Mr. Box of Intertanko.
On April 8, Somali pirates released Greek-owned oil tanker Irene SL after 58 days in captivity. Published reports claim a fee of more than $13 million was negotiated. That level would mark a record-high ransom paid by a ship owner for the recovery of a vessel. Martin Baxendale, spokesman for NS Lemos & Co. Ltd., owner of the Irene SL, declined to comment on the size of the ransom paid to recover the tanker.
The hijacking marked a significant escalation in Somali piracy, taking it into the main sea lanes of the Arabian Gulf. The crude oil tanker hijacking represented 20% of total U.S. daily crude oil imports, or 5% of total daily world seaborne oil supply.
According to non-governmental organization One Earth Future, a global-governance think tank, a total $415 million was paid in ransoms to Somali pirates in 2009 and 2010.
Aside from pushing for more prosecutions, ship owners want more aggressive policing at sea. “We specifically want governments to reduce the effectiveness of the easily identifiable mother ships, the hubs from which gangs operate, as well as increase naval assets in the piracy zone,” Intertanko’s Mr. Box said.
One nation that has taken a more pro-active stance is India, which earlier this year moved to give its navy greater powers to crack down on pirates farther out at sea, as pirate attacks moved deeper into its shipping lanes. The approach has already yielded a big catch. On March 12, the Indian navy intercepted a pirate mother ship, Vega 5, 600 nautical miles west of India, in international waters. The hostage crew was released unharmed and the 62 pirates were detained and transported to India, where they await trial. This was the southernmost incident of Somali piracy.
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