The international shipping industry (represented by BIMCO, ICS/ISF, INTERCARGO and INTERTANKO and the International Transport Workers’ Federation) is dismayed by recent comments, attributed to leaders of the Coalition Task Force operating in the Gulf of Aden, that it is not the job of navy forces to protect merchant ships and their crews from increasingly frequent attacks from pirates operating out of Somalia.
The pirates are now attacking ships on a daily basis with machine guns and rocket propelled grenades, and currently holding over 200 seafarers hostage. The pirates are operating with impunity, and governments stand idly by.
If civil aircraft were being hijacked on a daily basis, the response of governments would be very different. Yet ships, which are the lifeblood of the global economy, are seemingly out of sight and out of mind. This apparent indifference to the lives of merchant seafarers and the consequences for society at large is simply unacceptable.
The shipping industry is utterly amazed that the world’s leading nations, with the naval resources at their disposal, are unable to maintain the security of one of the world’s most strategically important seaways, linking Europe to Asia via the Red Sea/Suez Canal.
Since 9/11, the international shipping industry has spent billions of dollars to comply with stringent new security requirements, agreed by the international community to address concerns about terrorism. Yet when merchant ships – which carry 90% of world trade and keep the world economy moving - are subject to attack by violent pirates, the response of many governments is that it is not their problem and that ships should hire mercenaries to protect themselves.
The arming of merchant ships, as suggested by the Task Force, will almost certainly put the lives of ships’ crews in even greater danger and is likely to escalate the level of violence employed by the pirates. It would also be illegal under the national law of many ships’ flag states and in many of the countries to which they are trading.
The industry understands that military resources are stretched and that the Coalition Task Force is doing what it can, consistent with current rules of engagement provided by participating governments.
But the international shipping industry, in the strongest possible way, urges governments to commit the necessary navy vessels now, and to ensure they have the freedom to engage forcefully against any act of piracy in the Gulf of Aden.
Governments must issue clear rules of engagement to allow naval forces to intercept and take appropriate action against these violent pirates, and the oceangoing ‘motherships’ from which the pirates are operating, as permitted by UN Security Council Resolution 1816, of 2 June 2008, and existing international law about the rights of States to repress criminal acts on the high seas.
Governments must also ensure that these pirates and armed robbers, who are terrorising the high seas, are brought to justice in a court of law and are not allowed to resume their piratical activities unimpeded because of governments’ unwillingness to take the necessary action.
There should be no doubt that the situation is now so serious that major shipping companies, who are currently negotiating with charterers to avoid transiting the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea/Suez Canal all together, will decide to redirect their ships via the Cape of Good Hope. This would add several weeks to the duration of many ships’ voyages and would have severe consequences for international trade, the maintenance of inventories and the price of fuel and raw materials. This would also affect not just those countries to which cargoes are destined but all global seaborne trade, a consequence which, in the current economic climate, must surely be avoided.
A repeat of the crisis in the early 1970s, when the Suez Canal was closed and shipping was similarly diverted around the Cape of Good Hope, must be prevented at all cost, thus this call for urgent measures now – today and not tomorrow!
It cannot escape notice that the supply of consumer goods – the majority of which are carried from Asia to Europe via this vital sea lane - could be also seriously affected.
The international shipping industry recognises that the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization (IMO), with whom it continues to liaise daily, has acknowledged the massive severity of the problem and has similarly implored the United Nations and the UN Security Council to ensure that appropriate action is taken. But far greater urgency is required by governments and their navies, particularly those in the Coalition Task Force who are in the best position to restore security to this critical trade artery.
We need action, not words or rhetoric. What is at stake are the lives of merchant seafarers and the security of world trade.