Knotty Moral Problem
Parliament’s 11-member Foreign Affairs Committee released its report Piracy Off the Coast of Somalia on June 14. On that day, the 650-member House of Commons assembled in Westminster Hall for what would be a two-hour-long debate on Somali piracy. The session broached a variety of subjects, including maritime-security contractors, private floating-armory vessels, shipowners’ insurance, rules of engagement and the high number of captured pirates that have been released without trial—approximately 90 percent. The online transcript showed that the fiercest debate was on the topic of paying (or not paying) ransom.
The assembled members of Parliament (MPs) noted that the UK and various nations currently have policies of non-payment and non-facilitation of—but not interference with—ransoms to pirates. Representatives of the British shipping industry and seafarers’ trade union are concerned, however, that international policy someday could outlaw the payment of ransoms. “The Foreign Affairs Committee is worried about that,” committee Chairman Richard Ottaway, a Conservative Party MP and former Royal Navy officer, said in the House of Commons. Ottaway continued, “In our view, the only way to recover vessels is to pay ransoms, which is particularly appropriate when the use of force is ruled out. In all honesty, there is no other way for shipowners to recover their property. The position can be likened to a mugging of a man in the street. If he were subject to a violent attack, no one would tell him not to pay anything because it will only encourage more muggers. I invite the government to take a hard look at the matter and to say whether government policy is unchanged.”
Minutes later MP Eric Joyce, an Independent and a former Army officer, remarked, “Even if the UK obtained agreement from [other governments]…it is most unlikely that the payment of ransoms would stop. Pirates would still be attacking ships and taking people hostage. They would not be taking people hostage on the basis that their country was one that would facilitate a ransom payment.” Joyce noted, “There is a distinction between a government who make a political policy decision not to pay ransoms, and an employer…It therefore seems quite improper to constrain employers who may have seafarers at sea, from paying ransoms in cases when they could get someone released. People are held in Somalia, having been captured off the coast. For example, MV Iceberg 1 is still being held: two people are dead and others have been held for more than 800 days.” Merchant Vessel Iceberg 1, a Panamanian-flagged cargo ship with 24 multinational crewmen (one later committed suicide in captivity), was hijacked off Yemen in March 2010. The ship and crew are being held in lieu of an $8 million ransom, according to industry reports.
“The honorable Gentleman [Joyce] goes to the heart of the knotty moral problem of paying ransoms,” replied MP Martin Horwood, a Liberal Democrat and former staffer of the Oxfam international anti-poverty confederation. “Is not the problem that, although paying a ransom may well save the life of an employee or a loved one, it encourages the taking of hostages and the risking of other people’s lives?…Surely we must encourage shipping companies, and others, to take a firm stand against the payment of ransoms.”