Wednesday, May 26, 2010

When Is It Time To Pay A Pirate's Ransom?

As anyone who has looked at maritime piracy will know, it is a criminal endeavor that is all about money, especially the money to be garnered by holding crews, vessels and cargoes for ransom. And, as an economic criminal activity, if no one pays the pirates they will eventually move on to some other more profitable things. This is a bit of a simplification, but not far off the general mark, and it is one of the reasons that I have felt that those in the shipping industry should not pay ransoms (as well as taking more effective preventive measures to safeguard their personnel).

At present, though, it remains a difficult proposition to take because ransoms are being paid and if you've ever sailed with mariners through piracy-prone waters, as I have, this view means you are potentially relegating those you know to being incarcerated by criminals in dire circumstances.

In a worst case scenario situation, they'll hopefully only be held for a few weeks or months. But then there is the ongoing case of Rachel and Paul Chandler. The British yachters have been held by Somali pirates since last October 22, spending over seven months in captivity. The couple have made another plea through the media to have the British government help them, and one has to wonder whether something can't be done to free them.

The case of the Chandlers raises all kinds of questions about how we should deal with pirates. For instance, there is the fact that these two older British sailors have been held for seven months with little chance their family or friends can pony up a hefty ransom to free them. So maybe the British government should intercede and repatriate the couple. Maybe a campaign to raise awareness of their plight would help force the British government to do something. But, then again, wouldn't that just play into the pirates' hands, and embolden them to attack more yachters?

Maybe some of those naval forces in the region could swoop in and rescue the couple, doing what Jack Bauer does on 24 each hour. But some might remember the French response to their citizens captured by Somali pirates a year ago (see here), which ended with the master of the yacht Le Tanit killed.

This is a difficult and unique case, and I have no complete solutions. But it's the first time in a while that I have actually thought that maybe the ransom should be paid to free the Chandlers.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Royal Thoughts On Thailand

We're winding up the Victoria Day long weekend here in Canada, the unofficial start to summer shenanigans named in honour Queen Victoria, which has led to some thoughts about another royal, Thailand's King Bhumibol.

The most recent events that have rocked that southeast Asian maritime nation have been notable for missing one important element: Any commentary or guidance from Thailand's royal leader. To critique the Thai royal family within that nation - or elsewhere - is a delicate proposition, one that might land you in jail there should your comments be construed in certain terms by local officials.

The absence of the king during this recent crisis has finally been commented upon by William Stevenson in The Toronto Star. Stevenson - author of A Man Called Intrepid - is a former advisor to the Thai king, and his thoughts are worth checking out, by clicking here.

PS: Regarding the holiday described above, I should note that Canadians will take any excuse for a day off work, even an archaic celebration of a long-dead, foreign monarch whose is supposed to have uttered, "We are not amused." As a nation noted for its comedians, we can be take great amusement in drinking beer and blowing things up to honour someone. It's kind of like a long-running, annual wake. Cheers!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Reactions As Accused Somali Pirate Pleads Guilty In US Court

Over a year after he was apprehended by US forces in the Indian Ocean, Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse yesterday pled guilty in a New York court to charges relating to the attack on the box ship Maersk Alabama. This marks the first time in over a century and a half that the U.S. has prosecuted a piracy case in its legal system. Muse will be sentenced in October and prosecutors are expected to seek a prison term of at least 27 years. The lone survivor of the pirate gang that boarded the vessel, Muse is reported to have told the court - through an interpreter - that, "What we did was wrong. I am very, very sorry for the harm we did. The reason for this is the problems in Somalia."

In the wake of Muse's admission of guilt, one Somali source told the BBC that he has "serious concerns" about the case, and about whether foreign nations have the jurisdictional authority to try suspected pirates in their courts. Jamaal Cumar is described in the BBC report as "a US-based Somali official", though his actual capacity is not spelled out and there are few other online references to Cumar acting on behalf of the Somali government.

Cumar tells the BBC that, "he had been trying to work out why the US would have any authority to try Muse's case and those of several other suspects in custody in the US." He is quoted as saying, "The Somali government's position has always been that we questioned the jurisdiction of this case. We felt that it was an exercise in extrajudicial practice of the law and we asked the US to return those pirates back to Somalia."

What makes Mr. Cumar's media appearance odd is that he clearly has his priorities skewed. He fails to grasp the ability under both national and international laws for sovereign nations such as the United States to prosecute those accused of engaging in pirate attacks on vessels at sea, which are legally defined as incidents that happen outside the jurisdiction of littoral nations. The attack on the Maersk Alabama occurred in international waters, meaning that those involved (like Muse) have no protection from Somali laws, whatever those may be.

As well, one might think that Cumar would be more concerned about the plight of other Somalis accused of piracy. As EagleSpeak noted yesterday, a court in Yemen condemned six Somalis to death for their actions in seizing an oil tanker in April of last year (around the time the Maersk Alabama was attacked). There appears to be no media outcry from any Somali officials about that case, least of all from Mr. Cumar. As someone opposed to the death penalty for crimes like piracy, I would prefer the Yemeni officials were to do what the Americans will likely do, and incarcerate the pirates for lengthy terms. Though I would safely bet that Muse will fare much better in a US prison.

One other reaction about Muse's case comes from his mother: As reported in The Washington Post, Adar Abdirahman Hassan told the Associated Press from her home in central Somalia that she was pleading with President Barack Obama for leniency to her son. She felt that he had been "duped" into becoming involved with the attack by "adult friends" and thought that the he had pled guilty because Muse was afraid he would be sentenced to death in the US for his actions.

"Please, please President Obama," Hassan says, "Please, American people, please release my son and grant him citizenship to help us."

Friday, May 7, 2010

Russia Reacts To Piracy By Releasing Some, Prosecuting Others

Somewhat interesting couple of events unfolded today regarding the manner with which Russia has opted to deal with suspected events of piracy.

In the case of the tanker Moscow University, which was boarded by a band pirates in the Indian Ocean last Wednesday, a rescue operation was mounted the next day by elements of the Russian Navy operating from the warship Marshal Shaposhnikov. This resulted in the release of the tanker's crew and the capture of the boarders - and the death of one suspected pirate. Afterward, though, the Russians opted to release the captured suspects. As quoted in a BBC report, this was because of "imperfections" in international law. As EagleSpeak has noted from another site, the suspected pirates were apparently "put in an inflatable boat" and sent on their way by the Russians, since, in the words of one Russian defence official, they felt that, "Why should we feed some pirates?"

Nevertheless, on the same day the Russians also sentenced the first person to be convicted on piracy charges in that nation in some time. This related to the incident last summer when the freighter Arctic Sea went missing off Europe, an event which concerned a lot of folks. A court in Moscow today sentenced Andrei Lunev, originally said to be from Tallinn, Estonia, on charges of piracy. He was sentenced to five years in prison. Lunev and one other of the eight crew members charged over the incident admitted their guilt over the incident this past week. He is said to have struck a deal with prosecutors to avoid a lengthier jail term.

It's odd to see that the Russians are willing to prosecute those involved with the Arctic Sea incident, but not the Moscow University attack. With the latter case, it seems clear-cut that the individuals who boarded the tanker were intent on criminal actions. Being presumably armed and aboard a ship without the express permission of its master clearly violates some protocols. So why the double standard?

Many questions still remain unanswered about the Arctic Sea incident. According to the BBC report, some of the accused claim they were "set up" and had rescued the vessel, not hijacked it. And an unnamed Russian journalist who helped break the initial story is said to have fled Russia, "saying he had been warned to leave after suggesting [the ship] may have been carrying a secret consignment of weapons."

An odd set of events that leaves this observer scratching his head.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Centennial of the Canadian Navy

Tuesday, May 4 is an important milestone for the Canadian Navy, marking its official centennial. It was on this date in 1910 that the Naval Service Act was enacted into law and Canada began to assume an active military role on the waters that are such a defining part of our nation’s character. It’s often forgotten that Canada has the longest coastline of any nation on the planet, and except for Alberta and Saskatchewan, every province and territory here touches upon salt water. In the hundred years since a domestic maritime force was created, the navy has undergone great changes in carrying out its duties, so it’s worth remembering some of its history.

The first attempt at founding a Canadian Navy happened in 1881, when a stream-powered vessel, HMS Charybdis, was purchased from the British. But any hopes this would foster the creation of an effective force were short-lived, and the Charybdis soon fell into disrepair. By 1910, though, enough political momentum had developed and the nascent Naval Service of Canada was founded in May of 1910, though there was no fleet to speak of. The first warship to be commissioned into the Naval Service was the cruiser HMCS Rainbow, entering Canadian service on August 4, 1910 after serving with Britain’s Royal Navy since 1893. The fleet was added to less than a month later, when another former RN cruiser, HMCS Niobe, joined the navy on September 16.

HMCS Rainbow

It wasn’t until 1911 that King George V granted permission for the prefix “Royal” to be added to the service’s name, begetting the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) moniker that would remain until 1968, when the three branches of the navy, army and air force were amalgamated into the Canadian Armed Forces. Today’s navy is properly called Maritime Command, to the enduring annoyance of many. However, all Canadian naval vessels still retain the HMCS prefix.

By the time the First World War broke out in 1914, the Royal Canadian Navy was still under-funded, poorly equipped and struggling. Rainbow was based on the west coast of Canada, operating out of Esquimalt, British Columbia, while Niobe was based on the opposite coast in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Niobe actually spent the early part of the war on patrol off the eastern seaboard of the United States, part of the British fleet enforcing a blockade of ports like New York from German shipping. In August of 1914, Canada also acquired two American-built CC-class submarines in a strange manner: The subs had been built in Seattle for Chile’s navy, but the deal fell through. So the provincial premier of British Columbia brokered a deal to purchase them, and they were eventually commissioned into the RCN.

CC-1 and CC-2

Throughout the First World War and the post-war period, the RCN remained the junior service in Canada, failing to attract the public support that ground troops had acquired fighting in France and Belgium. (Canada’s aerial forces would not be officially constituted as the Royal Canadian Air Force until 1924.) But with the onset of the Second World War and the need for Canada’s growing economic base to support the allied war efforts abroad, the RCN experienced a phenomenal growth. When war was declared by Canada on September 10, 1939, the RCN consisted of just 13 vessels (6 destroyers, 4 minesweepers and 3 auxiliaries) and about 3500 personnel in both regular and reserve roles. By war’s end, the fleet would grow to becoming the third largest navy on the planet after the U.S. and Great Britain, with the RCN then boasting 434 commissioned vessels and some 100,000 uniformed personnel.

The years after World War Two saw a dramatic reduction in the size of the RCN, but the navy also saw the addition of aircraft carriers into the fleet (five carriers would eventually fly the Canadian naval ensign, perhaps most famously HMCS Bonaventure). And the RCN actively participated in the Korean War as part of United Nations’ efforts.

The Cold War period saw the RCN’s role adapt to fit with international demands through NATO and other alliances, including the loss of aircraft carriers and a greater reliance on anti-submarine operations. Also, the White Ensign which had been flown since 1911 (shown at the top left of this post) was replaced by the current naval jack in 1965 (shown at the top right). And while the fleet aged, plans were made to build a new class of warships – the Canadian Patrol Frigates – that would form the backbone of the navy. The first, HMCS Halifax, was commissioned into service in June of 1992.

Since the Halifax entered service, the Canadian Navy has participated in the war on terror, numerous humanitarian missions and, of course, counter-piracy operations. In honour of the century of service that members of the Navy have provided to Canada, the government has just announced the re-introduction of the executive curl, a part of the rank insignia that had been dropped when the Canadian Forces were unified in 1968.

To all those men and women who have served in the Navy over the years, and to those who continue to do so today, let fair winds, a following sea and a healthy toast be the order of the day, and may the memories of comrades past never be forgotten. Ready Aye Ready to one and all.

For more on the centennial, check out the Canadian Department of National Defence's website, which can be viewed by clicking here.

UPDATE: The navy's centennial anniversary was sadly marred by the news of the first Canadian sailor to die in Afghanistan. Petty Officer 2nd Class Douglas Blake was a member of the Fleet Diving Unit Atlantic, based in Shearwater, Nova Scotia, who had been deployed to Afghanistan last month as an explosive ordnance disposal operator. On Monday afternoon (Kandahar-time), PO2 Blake and his team had been called out to dispose of an IED in the Panjwaii District. After successfully disposing of the device, they were returning on foot to their vehicles when a second bomb exploded, killing Blake. He is the 143rd member of the Canadian Forces to die in Afghanistan and leaves a wife and two young boys.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Somali Islamic Insurgents & Piracy

With the news that the Islamic militants Hizbul Islam overran the Somali coastal town of Haradheere on the weekend, the pirates who had previously been using the port as a base of operations have fled northward, taking their belongings, supporters and even their hostages with them. But now that Hizbul Islam is reportedly in control of Haradheere, there appears to be some confusion about the group itself, and whether they mean to use the port for pirating operations.

For instance, yesterday's New York Times had a piece that wondered, "whether rebels with connections to Al Qaeda will now have a pipeline to tens of millions of dollars - and a new ability to threaten global trade." Unfortunately, the article is incorrect in tying Hizbul Islam to al-Qaeda. Though Hizbul Islam has invited Osama bin Laden and foreign fighters to come to Somalia to aid the insurgent group in its efforts to gain control of the country, and though the group's leader is believed to have ties to al-Qaeda, this particular Islamist organization is not thought by many experts to be linked with al-Qaeda. It is, in fact, Somalia's other main Islamist insurgent group - al-Shabaab - that has aligned itself with al-Qaeda. (For more on the two groups, see Bill Roggio's post at The Long War Journal from last month, by clicking here.)

Some of the confusion may stem from Shabbab's brief entry into Haradheere a week ago, which first caused the local pirates to pack up and leave. But the two Islamist groups are currently not closely allied and have not been working together for some time, and it would appear that Hizbul Islam's capture of the port was part of their efforts to consolidate territory over their rivals.

As well, the idea that the capture of Haradheere may signal a new piracy campaign on Hizbul Islam's part overlooks the fact that they could have engaged in active operations at any time in the past year had they been so inclined. The reality is that these Somali Islamist groups are more interested in their land-based operations than they are in any maritime criminal activities. It is believe that the insurgents receive some funding from piracy operations and rely on vessels to smuggle arms, supplies and other goods in and out of the parts of Somalia they control. As some reports have pointed out, the battle for Haradheere may have been partially the result of a failure on the pirates' part to send some of their profits to the Islamists. That is, the pirate gangs didn't want to pay protection money to either al-Shabaab or Hizbul Islam (though the pirates are known to accept protection money from some vessels operating in the seas off the Horn of Africa). So in a tit-for-tat response for not giving up a cut of the takes, the pirates of Haradheere found themselves being run out of town by better armed and organized adversaries.

The ideological foundations of groups like Hizbul Islam and al-Shabaab mean that if they engage in widespread piracy operations, they risk undermining their core supporters and any other Somalis who might be favorable to the Islamists. This is not to say these groups will completely refrain from engaging in piracy, just to point out they have other, more important issues to deal with ashore. For the time being, piracy does not appear to a priority for the Islamist insurgents.