Ocean-going ships are responsible for moving at least 80 percent of all commerce worldwide, so maritime pirates are a threat to everyone, especially those who are starving in Somalia and East Africa and rely on ships to deliver emergency shipments of food aid.
Robert W. Maggi, the U.S. Department of State’s coordinator for counter piracy, made that point in a November 23 interview with America.gov.
“The United States and international community are trying to feed those facing chronic hunger and starvation in Somalia and the Horn of Africa, but the ships carrying that humanitarian food aid must contend with pirates who are seeking to hijack and ransom emergency food shipments for their own personal and selfish financial gain,” he said.
“The United States strongly condemns all piracy on the high seas and views piracy off the coast of Somalia as being a symptom of difficulties and problems that are ongoing ashore.”
Maggi described the piracy, ransoming and hijacking off the coast of East Africa as “criminal activity,” possibly driven by economic circumstances in that region.
Recently, the Maersk Alabama was carrying 5,230 metric tons of humanitarian food bound for the East Africa region on behalf of USAID’s Food for Peace Program when four suspected pirates attempted to board and hijack the vessel 560 nautical miles off the northeast coast of Somalia. That food would provide a daily survival ration to 330,000 people for about 30 days.
The ship successfully repelled the hijackers with a combination of evasive manoeuvres; long-range acoustical devices and action by an armed security team onboard the ship. No injuries to the crew or damage were reported in the incident.
That event, Maggi said, illustrates the need for vessels to take appropriate self-protection measures when transiting waters off the Horn of Africa.
“The United States,” he said, “urges vessels to implement internationally recognized best management practices as developed by the shipping industry, their flag registry states, and the International Maritime Organization. These practices include self-protection measures such as increasing lookouts, taking evasive action, ensuring ladders are raised on ships, increasing lighting at night, and readying fire pumps to repel boarders. They may also include armed or unarmed security teams on board.”
An international armada of naval vessels from some 26 nations is now working to combat the piracy problem off the coast of East Africa. It includes ships from Japan, Russia and China in a “pretty unprecedented way,” Maggi said, because there is universal desire to eliminate piracy.
Piracy is not limited to the East African coast, he noted, but also occurs in West Africa, the waters off India, the South China Sea and the Caribbean.
The piracy problem in East Africa is exacerbated by the lack of a government in Somalia, he said. “What is different between Somalia and anywhere else is that I am not able to think of any geographic area in which there is no government to fight the problem. It is an ungoverned space. When you start looking at what Somaliland says, what Puntland says, and what the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) says and the fact that they often don’t agree with each other,” finding a solution to the problem is even more difficult, Maggi said.
While piracy success rates off
the coast of Somalia have
dropped from 60 percent in 2007 to less than 25 percent today, Maggi said piracy is still a big problem in an area off the coast of Somalia that exceeds 1 million square miles.
The pirates often use large “mother ships” that allow them to venture farther and farther away from shore, he said.
In an attempt to find what Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has called a 21st-century solution to a 17th-century problem, Maggi reiterated that the United States is a nation that adheres to the rule of law, unlike the pirates, who are working on an entirely different standard.
“That is why,” he said, “the United States and others formed the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia in January 2009 — which now includes some 50 nations partnered with the shipping industry — to develop anti-piracy solutions.
Maggi said security on ships is also affected by financial factors. “When you have a weak economy [such as now, when as much as 10 percent of the world’s freighters are idled and anchored because of the global recession], the profit margin becomes much more important for each ship and shipping line.
The problem is complex for those shipping lines,” he said. “They have to consider the safety and welfare of their ships and crew, their reputation, etc. It is all risk management.”
There are now about 12 ships being held by the pirates off the coast of East Africa, including the 300,000-ton, Greek-flagged supertanker Maran Centaurus, which was seized November 29 some 800 miles off the Somali coast near the Seychelles.
Some 30,000 ships like the Maran Centaurus pass through the Suez Canal — between the Indian and Mediterranean Oceans — each year, and the ships, their crews and goods, which are bound for ports worldwide, are threatened by the pirates.