The Evolving US Piracy Policy

John Konrad
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June 7, 2011

During the Council Of American Master Mariners’ annual meeting Captain Quick, a member on the IMO Working Group on Maritime Security provided an update on US piracy Policy. He said…

The National Security Council (NSC) has overall responsibility for counter-piracy policy for the U.S. The NSC developed an action plan in 2008 along three lines of action: Reduce vulnerability of ships by sharing information and the use of Best Management Practices (BMP) to avoid pirate attacks; interrupt acts of piracy by interdiction and intervention in pirate attacks, disrupting bases in Somalia, and depriving pirate’s ransom revenues; and hold pirates accountable through prosecution.

The action plan relies mainly in the hands of the Dept. of Defense, Dept. of State, USCG and Government Accounting Office (GAO), with 13 addi- tional U.S. governmental agencies play- ing smaller roles.

Piracy hijackings have increased in both scale and violence. The GAO reported a seven-fold increase since 2008, with a 30% success rate in 2010 (highest on record). Also escalating are the number of hostages held, length of time held, and amount of ransoms paid (now average $4M USD). Pirate attacks so far in 2011 are significantly higher. Pirates operating from captured mother ships have increased their range of oper- ation, and are now capable of operating in seasonal monsoon conditions.

As pirate operations have evolved, the NSC action plan has not kept pace: The GAO believes there is an urgent need for review, concerned there is no system- atic method for tracking the costs of the counter-piracy efforts and are unable to determine if it is achieving the desired results. While the GAO would like to quantify the results; it is clear those policies are not effective at suppressing piracy.

The Dept. of State believes the best action plan is to deprive the pirates of ransom revenues, however it is very hard to track the money. The NSC calls for disrupting bases in Somalia, but no action has been taken.

Under UNCLOS, piracy is a crime of universal jurisdiction, yet prosecution is a matter of national “soft” laws. The multi-national character of the Flags of Convenience (FOC) system compli- cates the situation where there’s no clear national responsibilities. Navies who capture pirates often can’t find States willing to prosecute.

The area pirates operate are too vast for navies to enforce, and military assets are urgently needed elsewhere (particu- larly Afghanistan and Iraq). Pirates con- tinue to attack less than one-half percent of shipping, and of those, have a 30% success rate. The Dept. of Defense argues that due to the relatively low number of incidents, merchant shipping needs to play a larger role in its own defense. It’s noted in all cases where private security teams are employed, they have success- fully kept pirates from boarding, making ships a hard target. Use of armed ships is contrary to BMPs, however, the ships that have 100% record of deterring pirate attacks are the ones that ignore the BMPs. Many Port states are against use of arms, which can create difficulties in ports of call.

U.S. Maritime Labor’s position is that protection from piracy is a government responsibility, and in the absence of a willingness of the government to pro- vide protection, ships should rely on private armed security. The ship, crew and armed security teams have a right to use arms to resists piracy under U.S. law, and the U.S. should provide legal and diplomatic support to individuals alleged to have violated foreign laws after an incident involving the use of armed protection against piracy.

The USCG is currently formulating its policy on the use of arms for defend- ing against pirate attacks and rules of engagement.

The attitude is beginning to change internationally on the use of arms. The U.S. and Russia were perceived as gun- happy – shoot first and ask later. With piracy-related violence escalating, coun- tries are now starting to change their policies to favor the use of arms.

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