Thursday, May 21, 2009


Guest Column By Vinod Goyel
(We carry with pleasure the following comments received from Shri Vinod Goel, a reader of SAAG, on the article titled “ Somalian Piracy Update (As on May 11,2009)” written by B.Raman at --- Director, SAAG)

I read your article updating Somali piracy posted on the internet under SAAG. Safety on the high seas is of special interest and concern to me. I am a Master-Mariner (one remains a Master-Mariner for life) and served the now defunct Scindia Steam Navigation Company. I was Chief Port Harbor Master in Nigeria and saw helplessly common piracy go unchecked at anchorage off Lagos where at one time about 300 ships were at anchor awaiting berthing. A lack of political will and possible nexus between the pirates and local authorities did not allow a robust response that would have halted piracy.

In the United States I earned the MBA, MMA and Ph.D. degrees. I earned the MBA degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology at Chicago, and the latter two degrees at the University of Southern California at Los Angeles. The MMA program covered the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea in depth. I earned a Ph.D. in international relations and was an adjunct at USC for about one year. My doctoral dissertation was on international regimes; specifically maritime regimes.

UNCLOS III does not cover piracy. It addresses the issue of weapons on board vessels when it provides requirements on how naval vessels, including submarines and aircraft carriers can transit the Exclusive Economic Zone of another country. To protect their vessels from piracy attacks, Denmark has begun to allow armed guards aboard. Your article reports that the U.S. Coast Guard expects U.S. flagged vessels to carry guards, armed or otherwise, when going through pirate invested waters. Recently the U.S. Congress held hearings on protecting merchant vessels from piracy.

As merchant vessels call at many foreign ports, the control of weapons aboard these ships becomes an issue. Merchant ships should be seen as first responders before military and para military assistance arrives to ward off pirates. As such merchant ships would be lightly armed and are unlikely to be seen as a threat to the authority of a local jurisdiction , such as a port, much less the sovereignty of a state. A regime could be worked out that will allow the Customs to seal all weapons aboard a vessel as bonded goods that can be accessed once the vessel puts out to sea.

As UNCLOS III does not cover piracy, foreign vessels are reluctant to pursue pirates once they enter the EEZ of another country. This is a serious problem. In a recent case, the Indian Coast Guard was shadowing a sea-jacked vessel whose identity had been altered. The sea-jacked vessel was trying to reach Pakistan's EEZ in the hope that the Indians would then abandon their pursuit.

Legal jurisdiction over pirates is another issue that requires international guide-lines. An international piracy court along the lines of international criminal court could be set up in several countries, Kenya, Singapore, Philippines, etc.

Long term measures that would curb piracy will require a new international regime or an adjunct to UNCLOS III that will specify the control and custody of weapons on board merchant ships when in port, the authority of a foreign flagged government vessel when pursuing pirates in another country's EEZ, and international courts that have the jurisdiction over piracy cases.

Merchant sailors or the hired guards will have to be trained on the use of force as first responders. Training is vital as merchant ships carry inflammable and explosive cargoes.

Terrorists must be watching organized piracy. If terrorists can sea-jack a laden super-tanker (300,000 deadweight tons of crude) and explode it alongside the coastline of a targeted state, then they would have carried off their most successful terrorist act to date. Sailors and sea-borne guards must be trained to prevent this.

Oceans are vast, and piece-meal naval task forces will not be able to cover the ocean space where pirates operate. A more inclusive approach is needed. Naval units from different countries must be assigned sectors to patrol under a unified command. An ideal solution will be if all littoral states develop a level of paramilitary capabilities and cooperate with the navies patrolling the oceans. If a naval vessel is pursuing pirates in an EEZ, instead of law becoming a hindrance, the alerted Coast Guard of the littoral state mobilizes in assisting the pursuit.

Piracy is a security, economic, labor and humanitarian issue. Ship-owners and insurance companies are said to be willing to pay ransom to the pirates than use deterrence. But there are other stake-holders. In the United States, Non-Vessel Operating Carriers, NVOCC, would not like their cargoes held up indefinitely or lost. Receivers do not want their factories idle or shops empty for lack of shipments. An international fund should be established into which all the stake-holders should contribute. The cost of any rescue or response to sea-jacking should be debited to this fund. This will be cost effective for all. In the days of Conference Lines, Conferences contributed to a mutual indemnity fund. IMO should be asked to undertake studies on safety of life and cargoes if vessels are armed. Taking sailors hostages is a labor and humanitarian issue. ILO and NGOs can play a role.

Finally there is a role for diplomacy. Can we put on uniforms on the young Somali pirates and make them into Coast Guardsmen? We can. A Coast Guard manned by ex pirates could be the first effective organ of a failed state.