Ramblings & ephemera

Modern piracy on the high seas

From Charles Glass’ “The New Piracy: Charles Glass on the High Seas” (London Review of Books: 18 December 2003):

Ninety-five per cent of the world’s cargo travels by sea. Without the merchant marine, the free market would collapse and take Wall Street’s dream of a global economy with it. Yet no one, apart from ship owners, their crews and insurers, appears to notice that pirates are assaulting ships at a rate unprecedented since the glorious days when pirates were ‘privateers’ protected by their national governments. The 18th and 19th-century sponsors of piracy included England, Holland, France, Spain and the United States. In comparison, the famed Barbary corsairs of North Africa were an irritant. Raiding rivals’ merchant vessels went out of fashion after the Napoleonic Wars, and piracy was outlawed in the 1856 Declaration of Paris (never signed by the US). Since the end of the Cold War, it has been making a comeback. Various estimates are given of its cost to international trade. The figure quoted most often is the Asia Foundation’s $16 billion per annum lost in cargo, ships and rising insurance premiums.

The International Maritime Bureau (IMB), which collects statistics on piracy for ship owners, reports that five years ago pirates attacked 106 ships. Last year they attacked 370. This year looks worse still.

In waters where piracy flourished in the past, the tradition embodied in figures such as Captain Kidd has persisted: off the Ganges delta in Bangladesh, in the Java and South China Seas, off the Horn of Africa and in the Caribbean. Three conditions appear necessary: a tradition of piracy; political instability; and rich targets – Spanish galleons for Drake, oil tankers for his descendants. A fourth helps to explain the ease with which it happens: ‘The maritime environment,’ Gunaratna said, ‘is the least policed in the world today.’

The IMB has not been able to persuade the international community or the more powerful maritime states to take serious action. The Bureau’s director, Captain Pottengal Mukundan, believes there is nothing crews can do to protect themselves. National maritime laws are not enforced beyond national boundaries – which is to say, over more than half the earth’s surface. Beyond territorial waters, there are no laws, no police and no jurisdiction. Many countries lack the will or the resources to police even their own waters. The IMB advises all ships against putting in anywhere near states like Somalia, for instance, where there is a near certainty of attack. … Piracy is a high-profit, low-risk activity.

The IMB urges crews to take more precautions, but owners can’t afford every recommended improvement: satellite-tracking devices, closed circuit cameras, electric fencing and security officers on every ship. Owners and trade unions discourage the arming of merchant ships in the belief that firearms will put crews’ lives at greater risk. Only the Russians and the Israelis are known to keep weapons aboard. Competition in the shipping business forces owners to minimise expenditure on crews as on everything else. A commission of inquiry into the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill that nearly destroyed the Alaskan coast reported that ‘tankers in the 1950s carried a crew of 40 to 42 to manage about 6.3 million gallons of oil . . . the Exxon Valdez carried a crew of 19 to transport 53 million gallons of oil.’ [Quoted in Dangerous Waters: Modern Piracy and Terror on the High Seas by John Burnett] With the automation of many shipboard tasks, vessels today carry even fewer seamen than they did when the Exxon Valdez ran aground. That means fewer eyes to monitor the horizon and the decks for intruders.

Air and land transport routes have come under tighter scrutiny since 11 September 2001, but improvements to maritime security are few. An oil tanker can carry a load that is far, far more explosive than any civil aircraft. And most piracy, including the seizure of oil tankers, takes place near countries with powerful Islamist movements – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Yemen and Somalia. Lloyd’s List reported on 4 November that Indonesia is ‘the global black spot’ with 87 attacks in the first nine months of this year – ‘the number of attacks in the Malacca Straits leaped from 11 in 2002 to 24 this year.’ Indonesia, which consists of two thousand islands, is the world’s most populous Muslim country. It has experienced decades of repression by a kleptocratic military, communal violence and the degradation of a once vibrant economy. Radical Islamists have made it the focus of their activity and recruitment in Asia.

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