Sunday, January 10, 2010

Paying Pirate Tributes: The cost of doing business in the shipping world

There was an interesting discussion on Sunday evening about piracy on the BlogRadio site's Midrat's show worth checking out (you can be hear it on the site's archive by clicking here). Part of the show talked about why piracy is not a more important issue to many people, and it's an important discussion.

As co-host Galrahn so succinctly put it, one reason for the lack of broad interest about the threats posed by pirates is because these maritime criminals engage - for the most part - in "non-lethal" actions. That is, you don't see mariners being killed on a weekly basis by pirates, while we hear of continuing casualties in places like Afghanistan (where six soldiers were reported killed today: Three Americans, two French and one British).

Assessing the severity of a political issue by merely looking at body counts is inherently wrong and overlooks the long-term implications that come from taking a reactive stance, as opposed to a pro-active one. And it should be apparent that waiting until enough mariners die at the hands of pirates is a silly way to formulate a cohesive, transnational strategy to deal with the problem.

But, then again, reacting to a problem is a far more common human trait than preparing for the worst. As was recently shown in the wake of the actions of Nigerian-born Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the so-called 'Christmas bomber' of a Detroit-bound airliner), it seems far easier to set up procedures to virtually strip-search passengers with expensive technology than to enhance the assets already in place to screen and prevent someone like him from ever boarding an airplane. But many feel things are somehow safer when there are pre-boarding scanners rushed into place at air terminals in Toronto or Chicago rather than the unseen work of human intelligence gatherers in Lagos or Sana'a. Out of sight is out of mind.

Piracy is nothing new. We've seen the modern-day version of this maritime crime increasing off the Horn of Africa for well over a decade, but our reactions have been, for the most part, relatively recent and only partially thought through. Our resources are limited and confined in terms of what they can really do. In just one example of the lack of attention being paid to the problem, the Toronto Star newspaper recently highlighted the problems the crew of the Canadian frigate HMCS Winnipeg faced on their counter-piracy deployment last year, which included lack of equipment and even enough uniforms to properly carry out their mission. Catch and release, convoys, barbed wire - these are rudimentary and crude responses to an international problem and need to be addressed. Quickly.

But there's plenty of blame to go around here beyond the way nations and their security forces have acted (or reacted). The commercial shipping industry bears an immense responsibility for allowing piracy to flourish in recent years, having been so willing to ignore the threat and pay ransoms when necessary. The libertarian nature of global shipping has fostered a climate in which mariners are pawns whose lives are to be gambled with when it comes to piracy. A colleague in the shipping industry recently put it to me this way: "Shipping is one of the few industries which have not yet fully recognized the value of persons as related to materials/assets." This individual went on to bemoan the way some shipping firms will essentially gamble with the lives of mariners, refusing to take out proper insurance or provide suitable anti-piracy training to their crews.

There are currently over 200 people being held against their wills by Somali pirates (see the most recent Reuters list of vessels seized by clicking here). By my reckoning, this is the largest number of foreigners being held in captivity in any single country on the planet. They should not be forgotten. And they should never have fallen prey to maritime criminals. The cost of doing business in the shipping world can no longer include enriching pirate gangs.

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