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Attacking Piracy: The Long Road to Nowhere

Published Jan 3, 2011 7:35 AM by The Maritime Executive

House Subcommittee hearing on International Piracy revealed little that was new, but also got to the heart of the problem. More importantly, the discussions highlighted why we are going nowhere fast in the fight against modern day piracy.

Yesterday, I tuned in to the live webcast of the Subcommittee hearing on International Piracy and the High Seas, mostly because of the impressive cast of characters lined up to give “testimony” and answer questions. Congressman Elijah E. Cummings (D-MD) sponsored and convened a hearing that lasted about two hours, during which high-ranking U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Navy, MARAD and a wide array of industry stakeholders gave statements and generally brought the committee members up to speed. I suppose that the meeting was, in a nominal sort of way, of some value to the members of Congress in attendance. For the rest of us, the discussions confirmed what we already knew to be true: the International coalition now addressing the problem can perhaps dampen the situation offshore, but in no way will they ever solve it. Here’s why:

From the outset, Congressman Cummings had it right. Everything else that followed was just window dressing. In his opening statement the Maryland lawmaker told the gathered audience and panel members that until stability could be brought to the shores of Somalia, there would be no easy solution to what happens offshore. Later, in a prepared statement released after the meeting, he said, “Unfortunately, we can have the best system in place to capture and detain pirates, but the structure will never be complete if we ignore the underlying problems that are leading individuals down the road of piracy. Although pirate attacks have decreased overall in recent years, the number of attacks in the Horn of Africa has increased dramatically. In fact, nearly half of the world’s pirate attacks last year occurred in this region. There is no doubt that the political and economic conditions of Somalia have fueled these incidents, and we must unite as an international community to help bring stability to that nation.” He is absolutely right.

Nevertheless, the bulk of the hearing centered on current efforts to stem the tide of the increasingly brazen attacks on commercial shipping and the net effect of all of that. And, while measurable progress is certainly being made – based on the statistics brought out by the various panel members – these efforts also come at a steep price and at a time when the cumulative international community can least afford it. Worse still is the realization that there is no end in sight to when this patchwork of security protocols can be eased off.

Cummings, the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, is very much aware of these metrics. He pressed U.S. Coast Guard RADM William Baumgartner to assess the impact of deploying Coast Guard assets for this mission when the marine safety mission at home is already stretched thin. Baumgartner replied the deployment was “built into normally scheduled operations” and that the Coast Guard “welcomed” these deployments. He firmly asserted that the efforts off of Somalia had no visible impact to marine safety missions. Still, I have my doubts.

Beyond the obvious cost of providing what amounts to convoy escorts in the area, U.S. Navy RADM Ted Branch also had to admit that there was no time limit that he could affix to the effort and that the combined efforts of Task Force 151 (four U.S. vessels and one UK vessel) were an “open-ended effort.” Others, notably the Russians, Chinese, EU and Japanese are also involved but coordination between all parties is less than perfect. In the case of the Chinese, this is apparently limited to E-mail. The Japanese, notably, are there only to protect Japanese assets. The good news is that the piracy problem, at least off the coast of Somalia, is primarily a financially motivated crime and there has been no obvious connection to terrorism yet to be found.

From the commercial side of the equation, there was much discussion on Wednesday about how the various trade organizations and the shipping lines themselves could act to improve the situation. Regulatory efforts such as the Maritime Security Act and the ISPS Code have had the net effect of raising awareness on board vessels and now, a myriad of “maritime security experts” are flooding the market with all sorts of proposed solutions; some better than others. IMB-reported acts of piracy are actually reported to be on the decline although the real reasons for this are still open to discussion.

The obvious solution of putting armed guards on board is an option that opens another can of worms altogether. Piracy, in the region of Somalia, has (so far) largely been confined to a non-violent event where the crews are left unhurt and the ships and cargoes end up safe – after the payment of a sometimes stiff ransom. But, arming the crews and/or placing guards aboard commercial vessels also introduces the increased threat of bloodshed and ultimately, the possibility of an environmental disaster, especially where tankers or toxic cargoes are involved. Also unanswered is the question of what the insurance side of the equation would have to say about it all and then, who defines the rules of engagement? Before a single (defensive) shot is fired, the issues of jurisdiction, and the legal (international) framework must be settled.

Cummings had it right from the outset. His post-hearing statement missed the mark just a little, however, when he says, “As we learned in today’s hearing, international piracy on the High Seas is a complicated issue that cannot be resolved overnight. The U.S. Coast Guard and Navy have been critical in preventing and intervening in pirate attacks through Combined Task Force 151 and its Coast Guard law enforcement detachment, and the contributions of the international community to patrol the Horn of Africa region have been instrumental in helping our cause. It is only through the united effort of the international community that we will be able to bring peace to our seas.”

All of that is true, and more. When it is all said and done, however, the considerable offshore effort is nothing more than a temporary band-aid until peace and political stability are brought to the region ashore. Until then, the international community is looking at a never-ending patchwork of solutions that will slow, but not end the problem. I liken the effort to the billions of dollars being spent on port security because of the obvious terrorism threat: it is bleeding us dry.

As yesterday’s hearing so aptly brought to light, these criminal acts are borne from economic desperation in the face of a growing political and social vacuum. By all means, keep up the pressure offshore and implement (the many & readily available) security measures that all parties can agree are sound and well-planned. In the meantime, maybe it is time for a Subcommittee hearing on what to do about stabilizing Somalia where it really counts: ashore. Any takers? – MarEx.

Joseph Keefe is the Managing Editor of THE MARITIME EXECUTIVE. He can be reached with comments on this or any other article in this e-newsletter at [email protected]