Appeasement Never Pays

Author : Arun Prakash 

At about 4 AM on the morning of 12th September 2010, just a few hours after she departed the Kenyan port of Mombasa for Durban in South Africa, the Motor Tanker Asphalt Venture was boarded by Somalian pirates. The ship’s last radio message indicated that she was heading for Harardheere on the Somali coast. This relatively small (4000 ton), ten year old bitumen-carrying ship has two attributes which made it a prime target for pirates: its top speed is a paltry 8 knots and it has a low freeboard; which means that a 25 knot pirate skiff could easily overtake her, and throwing a hook over the low railing, board her without a problem. Little was known or heard about the fate of the ship till she was released, seven months later, on 17th April; but sadly six of her 15-man crew have been kept back.

A look at the ship’s complex provenance provides a revealing insight into the vexed problem of piracy which has overtaken the seafaring world. The vessel is owned by a company in Sharjah, flies the Panamanian flag, and is managed by a Mumbai ship-management company which provided the Indian Master and 15 crewmen. Who should come to the rescue of the ship and its crew is the moot question which obviously took seven months to resolve. Legally the safety and security of a ship is the responsibility of the “flag state”; distant Panama in this case. The vessel’s owner, too has a degree of responsibility but, morally, every country has the duty to protect its citizens; especially those in durance – no matter where.

Two thousand year ago, a Roman citizen had to merely use the simple phrase“Civis Romanus sum: I am a Roman citizen”, to ward off arbitrary arrest, bondage or punishment in any part of the vast Empire. Lord Palmerston invoked this phrase when he declared to Parliament in 1850: “…a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and strong arm of England will protect him from injustice and wrong.” The foreign secretary was aware that every word of his statement was underwritten by the reach and strength of the Royal Navy.

Let us fast-forward 156 years to February 2006. On receiving media information that an Indian owned and manned dhow, MV Bhakti Sagar, flying the Indian flag had been hijacked by Somali pirates, Naval Headquarters (NHQ) ordered the destroyer INS Mumbai, homeward bound from Oman, to alter course for Somalian waters. The intention was for the ship to position herself just outside Somali territorial waters and remain on station, since intense diplomatic activity was underway, to negotiate release of the Indian crew. Nautical wisdom said that a powerful warship, looming unseen over the horizon, could open any number of options; not all of them military. And best of all, if nothing worked out, she could just come home, still unheard and unseen.

While Mumbai was proceeding with all despatch, a heated debate and discussion raged in the Cabinet Secretary’s office about the advisability of sending a warship on this mission. At the end of these deliberations, the MEA sent a written note to NHQ posing a set of rhetorical questions, which came as a revelation about the diffidence, timidity and lack of resolve, that prevails at the policy-making levels. Agonizing about how our African and Middle-Eastern neighbours would react to what was termed as “muscle-flexing” by the Indian Navy (IN), the note vividly illustrated why India has rightly earned the sobriquet of a “soft state”.

The essence of the note, which took a full 24 hours to traverse the corridors of South Block, was contained in one plaintive query which said: “Will we sail a destroyer every time an Indian national is in trouble anywhere?” The navy’s emphatic response: “Yes of course; if we have one available!” went unheeded, and the warship had to be recalled. A few days later, the ship-owner paid ransom to the pirates, and 21 Indian citizens came home, without the Indian state or its powerful navy having lifted a finger to protect them.

So what has changed in the past five years since? For one, the Somali pirates have gained immeasurably in audacity as well as range and scale of their depredations. They have graduated from small skiffs and trawlers to using medium-sized captured merchantmen as “mother ships”, which allows them the freedom to extend their range up to 1000-1500 miles from home waters – right into the Indian EEZ. The amount of ransom has risen from a few hundred-thousand to a few million US dollars per ship and crew.

Warships, of more than 25 nations, either individually or as part of joint task-forces, are regularly deployed in the Gulf of Aden, off the Horn of Africa, and in the Somali Basin to deter pirate attacks on merchant ships. The UN General Assembly has passed a number of resolutions authorising the pursuit of pirates into Somali waters and their prosecution.

However all these measures have failed to curb piracy, and the menace has now assumed serious proportions for a number of reasons, including the inadequacy of naval forces, lack of multi-national coordination, and the inadequacy of existing laws to deal comprehensively with captured pirates. The IN has, however, deservedly earned international plaudits for the bold and resolute actions of its Captains.

In the case of Asphalt Venture, it was the ship’s Emirati owners who, finally, negotiated a ransom of $ 3.5 million for ship and crew. There are two theories about why six Indian crew members have been kept back. One says that the pirates are annoyed because the owners have payed less ransom than agreed upon. The other, more disturbing version is that they are demanding the release of their compatriots captured, last month, by the IN. If Kandahar and IC-814 had a lesson, it was that appeasement never pays.

Perhaps it is, now, time to send a destroyer to the lawless shores of Somalia: this time with Marine Commandos embarked.

(Edited version of the this article appeared in the Indian Express on April 20, 2011)
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