Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Halifax International Fleet Review

It doesn't happen very often, but Queen Elizabeth spent Tuesday reviewing an assembly of international warships gathered in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Meant as part of the celebrations to mark the centennial of our navy, the International Fleet Review included warships from Canada, the United Kingdom, United States, Denmark, Germany, Brazil, France and the Netherlands. Among the international vessels moored in the harbour were the carriers HMS Ark Royal and USS Wasp; the frigates USS Robert G. Bradley, USS Boone, HMS Sutherland, France's La Ventose and Brazil's Independencia; the Ticonderoga-class cruiser USS Gettysburg, US Coast Guard Cutter Escanaba and the Danish warship HDMS Absalon (which has participated in counter-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa).

I wasn't able to watch the event live, as I spent the day with a Canadian veteran of the Second World War's Italian campaign while he recounted the battles of the Liri Valley. But all the pomp and ceremony can be seen in the video coverage of the review on the CBC site, by clicking here (it runs over three hours in duration). The official website for the Review is here.

Now if they could just return the name to RCN.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Memories Of Vietnam

Most of what you'll encounter on this site deals with piracy and maritime security, but I've spent decades traversing the globe as a journalist, filmmaker and gadfly, exploring all manner of things. In the course of those travels, I've been honoured to meet a number of people with whom I've kept in touch over the years, something that isn't always easy. Today I received word from one of those individuals that his father has died after a long battle with cancer. This colleague - he wasn't really a close friend - is Vietnamese-Canadian, born here after his parents fled their homeland during the Boat People exodus. His family came from just outside Hué, and his dad was a major in the ARVN who saw, I'm told, a lot of action. I only met the man once, many years ago, and was surprised at how little animosity he bore the foes he once battled, even though they were his own people.

In this man's honour, I present a few images from my time spent in Vietnam almost a decade ago. I was in Quang Tri Province at the time, filming a documentary around sites like Khe Sanh, the Rockpile, A Luoi , the A Shau Valley, Dong Ha, Ben Hai and Vinh Moc. Unbeknownst at the time, I was driving past his youthful stomping grounds each day, as I went back and forth to my hotel in Hué. I have never forgotten the beauty of a peaceful Vietnam nor its diverse peoples, or the unique way they dealt with a 10,000 day war. Which is different from other nations, such as Canada, from which about 30,000 left to fight in Vietnam, including a brother-in-law.

But I'd rather remember this man's homeland berefit of conflict. May he rest in peace.

On the ferry over the Perfume River

Kids near Khe Sanh (note old dog tags worn on left)

Wartime detritus salvaged by locals near Khe Sanh

UXO clearance on the Ben Hai River

Monument at the Truong Son National Cemetary

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

World Cup Weirdness

The most popular sporting event on the planet is currently unfolding in South Africa: the World Cup of football (or soccer to some). As billions of people around the globe follow the teams playing, the impact of trying to watch has led to some dire results.

As EagleSpeak noted earlier, some football fans in Somalia were executed on the weekend by Islamist militants for the crime of tuning in to catch a game. As reported by The Telegraph's Aislinn Laing, supporters of Hizbul Islam stormed a house near Mogadishu where a group had gathered to watch last Saturday's Nigeria-Argentina match. Ten people were arrested by the militants, and two others were killed. The Islamist militants feel that watching sporting events - like the World Cup - contravenes their interpretation of what is acceptable social behavior in those parts of Somalia under their control.

Today also saw the North Korean team facing off against the event's number one ranked team, Brazil (North Korea is the lowest ranked in the tournament). To their credit, the North Koreans - er, Korea DPRers - managed to score a late game goal against the favored Brazilians, who nevertheless took the match by a score of 2-1.

As the game played out, diplomats met at the United Nations in New York to discuss the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in March, which resulted in the death of 46 sailors. As AFP reports, the North Korean ambassador to the UN asked that his countrymen be allowed to conduct their own investigation, including visiting the site of the sinking. He also warned that the Hermit Kingdom might take "military action" should the world body censure his nation over the sinking. Should the Security Council take action against North Korea, the ambassador said that, "follow-up measures will be carried out by our military forces...I [will] lose my job."

Not sure what he meant by the last quip, but, then again, one doesn't want to piss off the Dear Leader back in Pyongyang in any way. And I'm sure the ambassador isn't going to be Tweeting anyone like a few people in South Africa have: "Dear Leader does not know I'm not at work."

Monday, June 14, 2010

Assessing The Number Of Pirates Operating Off Somalia

As the current piracy season off the Horn of Africa winds itself down - thanks to the coming monsoon season - we're beginning to get our first assessments of how things have changed in the last year. Reuters correspondent Peter Apps writes (here) that NATO and EU forces say they, "[A]re combating [pirates] more effectively." Unfortunately, those same sources say that many more pirates are plying the seas off the HoA than ever before.

The outgoing commander of the EU's antipiracy mission in the region (Operation ATALANTA), British Royal Navy Rear Admiral Peter Hudson, told a briefing in the UK late last week that, "We would say there has been a threefold increase in the number of pirates since 2009," referring to those operating off the HoA and adding, "I would say we are being more effective but against an increased level of threat."

Assessing the number of pirates working those seas is always problematic, inasmuch as no one is able to keep a tally of each and every individual embarking on a career as a maritime criminal. But while investigating piracy in the region a few years ago, the best guesstimates of total strength of Somali pirates I could discern from speaking with informed sources was that it was in the range of about a thousand individuals actively engaged in operations. Now, using RAdm Hudson's assessment as a marker, this observer would postulate there are now potentially at least 3000 pirates operating in those seas.

One might think that maybe the numbers are lower, and that the pirates are just busier in their activities. But having greatly expanded their scope of operations into the wider parts of the western Indian Ocean, while maintaining abilities to strike in inshore waters and the Red Sea/Gulf of Aden, implies an increased manpower base for the pirate gangs.

Additionally, there has not been a noticeable decrease in piracy emanating from parts of Somalia under the control of Islamist groups (such as al-Shabaab or Hizbul Islam). As the Reuters report points out, the takeover of the Somali port of Haradheere in May did not result in the release of any of the hijacked vessels being held nearby. The report also notes there has been, "[A]n increase in attacks launched from Islamist-controlled areas of the Somali coast." (The report's sources take pains to say that, "[W]ithout any land-based operations they simply could not tell if the Islamists were directly involved with piracy." But deeds speak volumes.

The fact that numbers of pirates are going up should not be a surprise to anyone familair with the region, as it is a criminal businerss endeavor that attracts opportunists, in a place with few other options. With at least 17 vessels currently being held - and some 357 hostages being held - the issue needs some new energy in order to stem the tide.

A decade ago there were maybe a hundred guys running around the seas off the HoA intent on attacking vessels. Now there may be 3000. And ten years ago there were but a handful of mariners being held hostage by criminals; now there are over 350.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

A More Detailed Look At The Law Of The Sea And The Gaza Flotilla Incident

As discussions and comments about the Gaza Flotilla Incident continue, the legal issues involved have been bandied around in ways that, at times, leave much to be desired. Advocates on both sides have tried to invoke elements of international law to bolster their opinions, to the consternation of some well-informed, objective observers.

In response to things, I recommend reading a piece in today's issue of The Globe & Mail written by Ed Morgan, a professor of international law at the University of Toronto (viewable by clicking here). In it, Prof. Morgan outlines the various laws and regulations about the Law of the Sea and rules of engagement pertaining to naval warfare.

"Reactions to the Israeli seizure of the Gaza-bound flotilla have shared two traits," Morgan writes, "They have virtually all invoked international law, and they have virtually all been marked more by their rhetorical excess than their knowledge of international law."

Morgan goes on to write, "Accordingly, the accusation of piracy is inapt, since under both customary law and Article 101 of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea that applies only to acts done for private gain. Israel's acts must be analyzed in terms of the law of naval warfare."

He then goes on the detail what constitutes a blockade and the laws regulating force at sea.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Gaza Flotilla Incident & Piracy Assertions

In response to a number of queries, I'm finally able to find time to comment on the recent incident off the Israeli coast involving the flotilla of vessels trying to reach Gaza. Specifically, I'd like to point out that under international law, the actions of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) do not constitute an act of piracy. (See Article 101 the UN Convention On The Law Of The Sea, here.) As EagleSpeak's notes, here, the key part of the Article's wording defines an act of piracy as being one committed for private ends, not one committed by governmental personnel.

That is, the IDF was not intent on seizing the flotilla vessels in order to ransom them, hold the crews hostage, etc. Compare, for example, the actions of international naval forces in the seas off the Horn of Africa, in which vessels have been stopped and boarded in international waters. Sometimes those vessels are seized (and sunk), at other times they are left to continue on their way. Either way, no international laws are being broken either off Somalia or in the eastern Mediterranean. It is important to remember the true definition of acts of piracy and not allow certain individuals to use the terminology to describe this rather bizarre incident.

What is slightly more odd about how events unfolded is the manner with which the IDF decided to carry out the boardings. As others have commented (such as Information Dissemination's lengthy posts, here), the IDF actions seem somewhat stupid in light of previous incidents in which security personnel have engaged in vessel boardings. Putting some commandos on a freighter held by pirates is one thing: A good commander knows the pirates and their hostages will likely be contained within a specific area and there is likely to be ample space on the vessel to effect a safe boarding. But dropping personnel via helicopter onto a heavily populated passenger vessel, at night, no less, virtually invites a confrontation, especially when the passengers aboard said ship are expecting something and are knowingly antagonistic to the idea of being boarded.

In the "what were they thinking?" mode, Information Dissemination posted the following cartoon, which comes from the Center for a New American Security blog (here):