Author : Arun Prakash
ARUN PRAKASH, COLUMNIST INDIAN EXPRESS,INDIAN EXPRESS OPED, UNDER A BLUE ENSIGN POSTED:
FRI NOV 18 2011, 02:53 Hrs
Emblematic of the world’s sense of frustration and helplessness in the
face of snowballing Somalian piracy was British PM David Cameron’s
strong condemnation of this phenomenon. Speaking on the margins of the
recent Commonwealth summit, he described it as “a complete insult to the
world” and urged the international community to “come together with
much more vigour” in support of counter-piracy endeavours. The leader of
this small island nation with a rapidly dwindling navy then offered to
lead the effort to combat this menace.
Dominated by the Horn of Africa, the Gulf of Aden forms a funnel for
24,000 merchant ships annually transiting the Suez Canal carrying energy
and raw materials to Europe and finished goods to Africa and the Middle
East. The abjectly poor Somalian Republic, which occupies most of the
Horn, has been in a state of turmoil for nearly two decades, and is only
notionally governed by a transitional federal government. Al-Shabaab,
an affiliate of al-Qaeda, has waged a four-year campaign to remove this
government, and controls most of southern and central Somalia.
An interlocked world economy, heavily dependent on seaborne trade and
energy supplies, is extremely sensitive to any perturbations at sea. The
threat of piracy has already caused insurance rates to rise steeply,
and as shipping companies reluctantly implement anti-piracy measures,
including the deployment of armed guards, and re-routing of ships to
avoid piracy-infested waters, operating expenses are skyrocketing.
Unbeknownst to the man on the street, all these costs are being passed
on to him.
From just 10-15 incidents in 2004, the waters of the Gulf of Aden have
seen acts of piracy and hijacking spiraling rapidly and in each of the
last two years there have been nearly 400 attacks, a quarter to
one-third being successful. With experience, the pirates have gained
immeasurably in audacity as well as the 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 Somalia — right up to
Indian territorial waters. The amount of ransom has risen from a few
hundred thousand to a few million US dollars per ship and crew.
Legally speaking, the safety of a merchant ship is the responsibility of
the country under whose flag the ship is registered or the “flag
state”. However, 60 to 70 per cent of the world’s shipping is registered
under “flags of convenience” offered, as a cost-cutting and tax-dodging
device, by small nations like Liberia, Panama, Bahamas or the Marshall
Islands. While it is unrealistic to expect such flag states to initiate
any action in a piracy/hostage situation, we must bear in mind that a
very large number of officers and seamen who serve on the world’s
merchant fleets happen to be Indian nationals. As we have already seen, a
hostage situation involving Indian sailors can bring enormous public
pressure to bear on the government.
External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna weighed in on this issue at the
recently held Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation
(IOR-ARC) conference by emphasising the need for collective action by
members to combat the menace of piracy in international waters. To lend
substance to the minister’s words, the Indian navy notched up yet
another success, as INS Sukanya successfully fought off successive
pirate attacks on ships that she was escorting.
The deployment of warships by 25 nations has failed to deter piracy
because these forces are inadequate and lack coordination. The
depredations of Somali pirates, now at India’s doorstep, pose a serious
threat to international shipping and the world economy. Should they
strike a mutually beneficial nexus with a terrorist outfit like the
Al-Shabaab, the consequences could be far more serious, especially for
small island nations. Under these circumstances, neither brave
exhortations by ministers, nor sporadic successes by navies are a
substitute for an action-plan based on a cohesive and long-term
multi-national strategy to eliminate piracy from Somalian waters.
Given India’s central location in the Indian Ocean and the fact that the
Indian navy and coast guard represent a maritime capability unmatched
in this part of the world, this situation presents a rare opportunity
for India to demonstrate that it can act resolutely, not only in its own
interests, but also for the common weal. To this end, New Delhi must
immediately convene a meeting of Indian Ocean and other maritime nations
to discuss a substantive multi-national initiative to combat piracy
simultaneously on three fronts: at sea, in the Somalian homeland and in
specially constituted courts. If it calls for a white-hulled naval
law-enforcement force sailing under the UN blue ensign; so be it.
A clear demonstration of leadership such as this, at sea, will garner
far more support for India’s UNSC bid than any amount of pleading and
cajoling in foreign capitals.
The author is the chairman of the National Maritime Foundation. The
article was first published in the Indian Express on 18 Nov 2011 and is