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Not a jolly roger, at all

The international community should launch a concerted attack on pirates, writes Preeti Singh.

india Updated: Nov 20, 2008 00:09 IST
Preeti Singh

Even as the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy romanticised buccaneers and made Captain Jack Sparrow a household name, a real-life piracy saga unfolds on the high seas. This real story stars Somali pirates, the Indian Navy and beleaguered national governments and multi-national corporations. Last week, Somali pirates took over the MV Sirius Star, a Saudi oil supertanker carrying two million barrels of crude oil worth about $100 million.

The rising incidence of piracy, featuring heavily armed Somalian gangs, and the alarming rate at which they continue to raise the stakes, poses two questions for the international community. One, what rulebook can the world throw at a bunch of sea-bandits who terrorise multinational crews in international waters, and belong to a country that has not had a functioning government for over 15 years? Two, whose job is it to ensure the safe passage of ships in piracy-infested waters?

The fear that terrorists might disrupt the Sea Lanes of Communication has led to initiatives like the ‘Eyes in the Sky’ initiative of Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore. Joint patrolling has brought down incidents of piracy in the Malacca Straits.

Earlier this year, after the hijacking of the MV Faina, a Ukrainian freighter loaded with T-72 battle tanks, the UN Security Council had passed a resolution allowing ships to patrol Somali waters, permitting cooperative countries to enter the strife-torn country’s territorial waters and use “all necessary means” to stop “piracy and armed robbery at sea, in a manner consistent with international law”. But given that Somalia has no government to speak of, there are limits to such pursuit. As the recent hijack has shown, the pirates’ heightened mobility vis-à-vis slow moving cargo ships has enabled them to expand their area of operations.

Since these criminals operate in international waters, which belong to all, there is no one country that can claim jurisdiction over the high seas. While this makes it easy for any nation’s navy to intercept and rescue besieged ships, the intercepting forces are often deterred by having to escort the culprits to territorial waters for national laws to apply. In the old days, navies were expected to summarily execute captured pirates, and it seems that dealing with them on the spot, and out in the open waters, continues to be the preferred way.

Also, since most ships have multinational crews and carry the flag and cargo of different countries, most nations have been content to pass the buck rather than take action. The shipping corporations are often left alone by national governments to conduct negotiations and pay hefty ransoms. They are being forced to divert their vessels to avoid shorter but dangerous routes like the Gulf of Aden, despite the presence of Nato and US warships, even as insurance costs continue to rise.

Naval warships from various countries have been patrolling international waters and on Tuesday night, the Indian Navy sank a pirate ship off the Gulf of Aden. Advocating an international task force to escort convoys in international waters, defence analyst C Uday Bhaskar believes that “the Indian Navy has done a commendable job and is now in a position to provide an important service for the collective good”.

The time has come for the international community to coordinate national efforts and launch a concerted counter-attack on maritime piracy. As Jack Sparrow put it, “The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can’t do.” So...