After being hijacked by Somali pirates over six weeks, the Spanish tuna boat Alakrana and her 36 crew were set free earlier today. According to one media report, the criminals who seized the vessel on October 2 were paid a ransom of $3.3 million (though The Telegraph says the figure was $3.5 million). In the Associated Press report, the Spanish prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was quoted as saying, "The government did what it had to do," adding that, "The important thing is that the sailors will be back with us. The first obligation of a country, of the government of a state, is to save the lives of its countrymen."
Just a week ago, Spain's defence minister was calling on the international community to blockade pirate havens and more forcefully address the money end of piracy (see my previous post here). Now it would appear the Spanish navy stood by as money was paid to release the fishermen. And it also seems that the Spaniards don't have far to look if they are serious about stemming the flow of ransom funds to these criminal gangs, possibly down the proverbial hall.
The issue of double standards is now front and center if the Spanish government really did pay off the pirates who hijacked the Alakrana. For all those other mariners currently being held hostage by Somali gangs - such as North Koreans, Filipinos and others - the issue is now the shifting to government reactions to pirates' demands, where it was previously the domain of the shipping industry.
The idea of paying ransoms to secure the release of captive seafarers has long been considered a cost of doing business by shipowners and management companies, a simple - albeit expensive - means of securing the safe release of those seized by pirates. This is a very delicate issue, but has been tempered in the recent past by the fact that the amounts being paid were not inordinate. A few hundred thousand here, a half million there, these were cost effective ways of dealing with the situations. But once governments get involved in the paying of ransoms that amount to over $3 million, it changes things dramatically.
While I am glad the crew of the Alakrana is now free, I can't help but wonder about what repercussions of this particular incident will be. Will the British government pay off those holding Rachel and Paul Chandler, the couple whose yacht was hijacked by pirates on October 23? Will the North Korean government do likewise for their mariners captured Monday?
When governments pay off criminals for their actions, it sets a dangerous precedent. Some say we should never reward terrorists for what they do. Is this any different? There's a fine line between balancing the lives of hostages and making the problem worse going on here. And, as an aside, paying $3.3 or 3.5 million for a tuna boat also raises the stakes. This is more than was paid to free the supertanker Sirius Star a year ago. At this rate, I'd be willing to bet we'll see a $10 million ransom demanded, and likely paid, before next Spring.
On a related note, it's worth reading today's piece on the London Times site from the head of the British Royal Navy (RN), regarding the plight of the Chandler couple and the inability of RN forces in the area to not rescue the couple. At the end of the article it says that the current ransom demands from the pirates holding the Chandlers now stands at $7 million. Two people, one yacht, seven million dollars.