Sunday, July 19, 2009

A mid-year look at global piracy

Going through the most recent report on piracy and armed robbery incidents around the globe from the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) makes for some heavy reading, if only because there is so much going on out there. And the report released by the IMB last week only covers the first half of this year (beginning of January to end of June 2009). If you're interested in the entire document, click here and fill in the fields to request a PDF in your inmail. Meanwhile, here's an overview of what's presented in the report:

The most obvious observation is that reported piracy incidents - actual and attempted - are way up this year. The IMB records 240 incidents in the first six months of this year, which compares to 293 for all of 2008, 263 in 2007 and already surpasses the 239 recorded in 2006. In the last half decade, the highest annual number of incidents reported by the IMB was 329 in 2004, so this year's data is already notable.

More troubling is the dramatic increase in hostage takings: There have been 561 individuals taken prisoner by pirates so far this year, mostly by suspected Somali pirates (495 reported hostages). And we thought last year was bad when 190 mariners were reported to have been taken hostage by pirates around the world. According to the IMB, there are currently 178 people being held hostage for ransom by suspected Somali pirates, along with 11 vessels.

While the waters off the Horn of Africa remain the most dangerous for piracy, the IMB report shows the seas near Nigeria continue to be bad, with 13 incidents reported so far this year in that region (versus 18 incidents reported in 2008 and 19 in 2007). Peruvian waters, of all places, have seen 10 incidents reported since January, far in excess of anything previously seen in that part of South America. Malaysian and Vietnamese waters have also seen increases in incidents, as have the general South China Seas. Bangladeshi territory, meanwhile, continues to hold steady in terms of attacks.

Of actual attacks reported so far this year, there's an almost even split in terms of what the vessels were doing: 50 vessels were attacked while anchored while 49 were steaming. But another 120 incidents involved vessels steaming who were attacked, but not successfully boarded.

Vessels in the top five flag nations attacked flew the flag of Panama (in 40 reported incidents), Liberia (22), the Marshall Islands (18), Malta (16) or Singapore (15). The Singapore tally should be of some concern, as the island state is not normally considered a lax, open-registry locale and has a robust maritime self-defence force. Indeed, given the large number of commercial vessels currently lying in anchorage off Singapore owing to the global recession, their caretaker crews should be especially vigilant about not becoming sitting ducks out there.

Though the Panamanian flag may be the most commonly attacked - and not, I would add, just because of its nationality - most of the vessels attacked have been controlled by German firms (in 38 cases to date this year). Greek companies are second on the list (33), followed by Hong Kong (13) and Singapore (17). There have also been 7 incidents involving vessels controlled by British shipping firms.

Yet it is mariners who face the brunt of the problem, as shown by the reported 561 taken hostage so far this year by pirates. Those seafarers who do encounter attackers today are much more likely to find that guns are being employed in incidents, with 151 reported uses of firearms so far this year compared to 39 in 2008. the level of violence is spiraling upward, with six mariners reported killed in incidents so far this year, with another eight missing.

This has led to a renewed discussion about whether seafarers should be armed in order to defend themselves from attackers, but the IMB remains supportive of the Maritime Security Committee (MSC) of the UN International Maritime Organization, which feels that arming crews is not the answer. Indeed, the MSC worries that an "arms race at sea" may ensue if weapons appear on merchant vessels. I think this is an apt term, for it brings to mind the money, resources and training that that are required to effectively deter pirates. Over half the incidents recorded in the IMB report for the first six months of this year have involved attackers armed with guns, and every incident - every one - involved a weapon of some sort. It's one things to advocate placing weapons on an American- or other Western-flagged vessel. But can the same level of deterence be safely expanded to every ship out there? Yes, it could, but who is going to oversee this, because I seriously doubt that Liberia, Panama or Antigua-Barbuda will do so. This is merely an observation.

Also, EagleSpeak keyed to a Russian pronouncement in the Hindustan Times that Somali pirates now number over 5000. I was somewhat taken aback by this figure, and, after checking with my sources in East Africa, wonder if the Russians aren't counting ancillary supporters into things. Seems like the real figure may be around 2000-2500, but, then again, no one is able to do a really accurate tally. Still, in mid-July I seriously doubt there are 5000 Somali pirates prowling the seas off the Horn of Africa. And I seriously hope I'm right.

But the last things I'd add are that all of these dire notes are based on only six months of reporting. We've a long and hard year still to come, and the quiet summer months can be deceiving as monsoons blow off East Africa and land-based Westerners go on vacation. But, as the IMB report shows, this has been a terrible year around the globe for piracy so far, and things will only get worse in a couple of months. And it is vital to remember that all the data presented here, from the IMB report, only involves reported incidents. There are many more events going on out on the waters of our planet that are not reported. So if just the reported incidents scare you, imagine how much deadlier things really are.

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