When innocent people are killed at sea, the guilty need to be punished, or else ‘official murder’ will become routine in the high seas” With frequent incidents of maritime violence and tension in recent time, the seas have become more and more unsafe even for bona fide seafarers. If it’s not the Somali pirates holding Indian sailors captive for ransom, it’s a merchant ship opening fire on Indian fishermen, mistaking them for terrorists or pirates.

With a fishing community of about two million fishermen, India has over 300,000 fishing boats. In addition, Indian seafarers form a sizeable chunk of merchant ship crews who sail the world’s oceans. These seafarers, whose livelihood takes them into international waters, are exposed not only to the vagaries of nature but also to those brought on by men. This is because no common international law with regard to self-defence applies in international waters. China’s Navy, Coast Guard and “civilian” fishing trawlers are presently ramping up tensions in the South China Sea, with a view to enforcing Chinese claims on these waters and islands. India is interested in free and safe navigation here, since 50 per cent of its sea-borne trade passes through these waters.

On February 15, 2012, two Italian marines, carrying out vessel protection duties on an Italy-registered oil tanker (Enrica Lexie, en route from Singapore to Egypt), fired on an Indian fishing boat (assuming the fishermen to be pirates) in India’s exclusive economic zone barely 15-20 nautical miles off the Kerala coast, killing two Indian fisherman. Fortunately, the Italian ship was tracked by an Indian Coast Guard aircraft and directed to Kochi, where the two marines were taken into custody and are facing trial under the Indian judicial system. The master of the ship was not taken into custody, as apparently “he was not aware of the firing” and the ship was allowed to sail from the Kochi port. The London-based United Nations body, International Maritime Organisation (IMO), has issued guidelines for making shipmasters accountable for any firing (in self-defence) by privately contracted armed security personnel, but is silent on military personnel protecting merchant ships. This loophole needs to be plugged at the earliest, as more Western nations are putting armed military personnel onboard their merchant ships for protection duties.

More recently, on July 16, 2012, came the news about a US Navy oil tanker ship, USNS Rappahannock, opening fire on a UAE trawler and killing one Indian crew member (a daily wage earner from Tamil Nadu), while injuring three crew members who were UAE citizens. This incident took place in the UAE’s territorial waters, barely 10 nautical miles from Dubai’s Jebel Port. News channels interviewed one of the surviving crew members, who spoke in Tamil about 200-300 machine gun shots fired without any warning. Dubai corroborated his statement. In any case, I doubt if these fisherfolk would have understood loudspeaker warnings blared at sea in English, that too with an American accent. Subsequently, the US Navy stated that the fishing vessel was warned to keep clear before lethal force was used; “condolences” were offered, and an inquiry ordered.

One can understand the necessity for force protection measures (FPM) introduced by the US Navy after its warship USS Cole was badly damaged by a “suicide boat” on October 12, 2000, resulting in 17 sailors being killed and 28 injured. But the fact is that when innocent people are killed at sea, the guilty need to be punished, or else “official murder” will become routine in the high seas, where illiterate fishermen may not understand loudspeaker warnings issued in English, and where shots are not fired across the bows before lethal force is used.

I wonder what would have been the reaction if some innocent American or Chinese fishermen had been killed in a similar incident. Clearly, India needs to be at the forefront to get the IMO to bring in an international law covering such incidents. In the interim, the UN body needs to urgently insist that all warships and merchant ships must take a complete “action video” whenever they open fire on suspected pirates or suspected terrorists, as proof that all warnings were given (in multiple languages) and warning shots fired before lethal force was used in self-defence, as a last-ditch measure. In addition, it’s perhaps time for Track-I and Track-II dialogues between concerned maritime nations.

China’s Navy, which employs very provocative, coercive diplomacy in the South China Sea, will soon turn its gaze to India. Hopefully our leadership and the Navy will not be found unprepared. It is a sign of the significance of India’s geostrategic location and the respect the growing capability of its Navy has earned that in early 2012 China suggested regular bilateral talks on maritime issues.

Interestingly, the navies of China, India, Japan and South Korea are co-operating in the Gulf of Aden anti-piracy patrols, while their Coast Guards are part of the 18-nation ReCAAP (Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Armed Robbery and Piracy in Asia), founded in 2006, with headquarters in Singapore. The heads of these 18 Coast Guards are scheduled to meet in New Delhi from October 1 to 4 this year. However, bilateral Sino-India Track-II talks need to be institutionalised and held regularly, so that these two nations cooperate rather than compete at sea.

Take our Western neighbour. Rear Admiral Wasim Akram, the director general of Pakistan’s Maritime Security Agency (PMSA), visited New Delhi from July 11 to 14 for discussions with his Indian counterpart, Vice-Admiral M.P. Muralidharan, who is the director-general of the Indian Coast Guard (ICG). This confidence-building measure is part of a process that began in 2005, when I, as DGICG, visited Pakistan twice to sign the ICG-PMSA Hotline Agreement, which is still functional. I have always wondered that if these two serving admirals can meet regularly at the Track-I diplomacy level, why can’t the Army, the Navy and the Air Force Chiefs of the two countries meet at least once a year?

To make the seas safer, nations need to engage one another both at Track-I and Track-II levels. Track-II diplomacy may not be a magic wand, but it keeps the lines of communications open and facilitates frank dialogue, thus providing a better understanding of the compulsions of either side, while providing valuable inputs to Track-I dialogues.

(The writer, a former vice-admiral, retired as Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Eastern Naval Command, Visakhapatnam. This article first appeared in The Asian Age on August 3)
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