Atlantic Council: Legal Framework of Counter Piracy Effort Requires More Attention

Garrett Howard
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November 25, 2012

The Atlantic Council recently launched their Counter-Piracy Task Force report, an action oriented effort to analyze and make recommendations on the complex maritime piracy challenge.  The task force brought together the top experts on counter piracy, including international organizations, former officials, academic experts, and industry executives.

As the keynote speaker, the Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro made timely remarks as to the immense progress achieved in counter-piracy efforts since the initial surge of hostile attacks in the 2007 and 2008 periods.

However, the increased sum of ransom payments, lack of employment opportunities, and vast numbers of potential pirates have resulted in an organized, transnational criminal enterprise which must be dismantled for piracy to be effectively combatted.  Piracy threatens both the global economy and global regional security, with the failed state of Somalia offering a safe haven for crime on a strategic shipping lane.  As such, efforts to eliminate piracy must be international in nature- combining efforts of governments, international organizations and industry.

International cooperation to combat piracy has been noteworthy.  Successful attacks off Somalia have decreased from 68 in 2010 and 34 in 2011 to only 10 in 2012.

In January 2011 there were 31 ships and 710 hostages being held; by October 2012 the numbers were dramatically decreased at 5 ships and 143 hostages.  The US, NATO, EU and private sector have all worked together with a “smart power” approach.  Up to thirty ships from 22 nations are engaged in anti-piracy operations on a daily basis.  While military power is necessary, it is not sufficient on its own because of the sheer scale of the domain.

In order to optimize anti-piracy results, Shapiro noted that solutions must include an empowered maritime industry.

  • Best practices established have been highly effective, including hardening the ships by increasing speed, establishing barriers to boarding, etc.
  • The most effective counter-piracy tool is an armed Private Security Team (PST) onboard.  Not a single ship with an armed PST has been captured.
  • Nearly 20% of ships transiting off HOA are still not implementing proper security measures, making them at high risk for hijackings.

As an international community, we must focus on underlying reasons for piracy in order to eradicate it.  Stability in Somalia must be prioritized to eliminate the safe haven for piracy and provide social and economic alternatives.

Additionally, the international community must demonstrate a commitment to prosecute suspected pirates.  While customary international law gives international jurisdiction for crimes of piracy, nations must demonstrate a commitment to prosecute and incarcerate pirates.  The international community is working to develop a legal framework to facilitate prosecution and incarceration of pirates in Somalia.

Yet having a legal framework is insufficient for successful prosecution.  The maritime industry must support the prosecution efforts, permitting crew members to attend trials as witnesses.  Without these invaluable witnesses, cases are often undermined and pirates released.

Though industry is working to harden ships and employ best practices to lessen risk, governments must continue to focus resources and attention to the issue.  Specific concerns focus on the logistical challenges of Private Maritime Security Companies (PMSC)- who often require extensive licenses and permissions to move their teams and weapons that have proved invaluable to preventing piracy.

Currently there is no international regulation governing the PMSCs, resulting in varying sizes, quality, and complications when traveling from ship to ship.  A focused effort to create a standardized regulation governing the PSTs would serve to increase their efficiency and effectiveness, while also mitigating concerns that PSTs may be rogue mercenaries.

Other challenges of counter piracy include domain awareness; the vast range of pirates operating from mother-ships makes large swaths of the maritime transit corridors open to attack.  It is impossible to effectively patrol the entire region with a counter piracy task force.  Focus is on major transit corridor, but time x distance equations make it challenging to respond quickly.

Transnational criminal organizations provide vast financial networks and assets to ‘rank and file’ pirates, extending the scope of counter-piracy operations. Eliminating these networks requires careful coordination with law enforcement agencies around the world.

Finally, the permissive environment which exists in certain strategic locations lends to greater levels of piracy.  The Somali region offers a piracy haven due to its geographical location near strategic shipping lanes, social acceptance of piracy, lack of legal framework, and nascent government.  Without improving these issues, efforts at sea will never be entirely successful.

The Task Force Report, available here offers valuable insights and analysis.  Key recommendations include:

  • Improve the international legal framework to prosecute piracy, to include standardizing jurisdictional authority, law enforcement measures and consequences.
  • International community must improve legislative and judicial capacity of Somalia for more effective prosecution and incarceration.
  • Vessel self-protection measures using best management practices and employing armed security teams have been successful and are a cost effective solution, but measures require clarification to ensure uniformity. State Department must reconcile export control policy with pro-armed guard policy.  IMO or another international regulatory body should formalize and standardize official policy.
  • Need to increase communication, intelligence sharing and coordination between PMSCs and international naval forces.
  • Regional nations do not have adequate capacity to counter piracy due to insufficient domain awareness, inadequate intelligence, and deficient patrol/response capabilities.  Training and capacity building should focus on these areas.

With continued efforts from governments, industry, and international organizations, piracy can be effectively combated, ensuring freedom of the seas.

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