Pirates off the coast of Somalia seem to be picking off ships and tankers by the day, a sure sign that they are emboldened by the lack of response from the international maritime community. The Indian Navy has proved the exception in recent weeks, sinking two pirate ships and foiling potential hijacking bids in the wake of the capture and subsequent release of the Stolt Valor with its Indian crew. The manner in which the pirates hijacked a Saudi supertanker 500 miles off the Kenyan coast suggests that these are not novices driven by poverty, but motivated people armed with sophisticated weapons and political backing. To date, there are four main pirate groups in Somalia led by several warlords. The Indian Navy has responded episodically to protect Indian vessels, but given the increased inventiveness of the pirates, a more coordinated system has to be put in place.
The attitude taken by US warships patrolling the Gulf of Aden that they do not wish to come to the aid of the stricken Saudi tanker may make economic and political sense in the short term. But in the long term, no one is immune from the threat of piracy. The pirates have mounted at least 84 attacks in 2008 and collected millions of dollars in ransom. Clearly, they are not going to fade away.Cargo ships have minimal maritime deterrent, especially those carrying food relief supplies to Africa. Already, shipping lines are facing cost overruns of up to $450,000 a day thanks to having to take more circuitous routes and running costs.
There is no excuse for countries using this dangerous route not to come together and fashion a multilateral response. The UN has clearly stated that any government cooperating with the Somali Transitional Federal Government may undertake operations they deem fit against the terrorists. Since India has taken a lead in the charge against piracy off the Somali waters, it should try and stitch together a viable coalition just as it conducts joint patrols in the Straits of Malacca with the US. Once a ship is captured, it is impossible to storm it without loss of lives and damage to cargo. So, clearly pre-emptive action is the only way to go. The Indian Navy’s armed response will not have been lost on the pirates. Now is the opportunity for nations to come together and drive the pirates out of business by making it more expensive and dangerous for them.