There is a political debate in London, hub of the world’s maritime industry, attempting to find the best way to permanently “disrupt the business model of piracy” in the high-risk area (HRA) that involves the Gulf of Aden, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. No legislative body outside of Africa is more engaged in the Somali-piracy issue than the UK Parliament. And there is no easy solution to the piracy problem.
Somalia’s failed-state condition has thrown several thousand impoverished gunmen into an underworld economy fueled by $1 million plus ransoms on hijacked merchant ships and crews (and the occasional yacht). Nation-building efforts in Somalia would be incredibly costly to outside nations, dangerous to execute and uncertain in terms of results. Coalition naval forces have been highly successful against pirate motherships and skiffs alike, ones filled with thugs armed with AK-47s, machine guns and RPG-7s. However, a military defeat of piracy requires a steady presence of warships, supply vessels and helicopters in the HRA. The world’s navies cannot afford this. Merchant vessels carrying privately contracted, armed-security teams that are prepared in accordance with the BMP4 manual are never hijacked, but fewer than half of the ships making HRA transits each year are reportedly taking these measures.
One side of the debate in UK’s House of Commons states that, if the maritime community, private citizens and some other nations’ stopped paying ransoms (while naval and private-security forces maintain their pressure), Somali piracy would become unprofitable and eventually cease. This argument draws some of its veracity from none other than writer Rudyard Kipling. His 1911 poem “Dane-geld” recalls the old English royal policy of simply paying Viking raiders to kill and plunder somewhere else. Kipling warned of continual extortion: “So when you are requested to pay up or be molested, you will find it better policy to say: ‘We never pay anyone Dane-geld, no matter how trifling the cost; for the end of that game is oppression and shame, and the nation that plays it is lost!’” Kipling is still quoted today.
Doubtless nobody in London believes it would be an easy thing to leave hostages to rot and possibly die in Somalia in order to defeat piracy in the long run. Even so, there is a cold logic in the no-ransom argument to de-fund this criminal enterprise. Billions of dollars worth of maritime cargoes, including petroleum, transit the HRA each year—piracy there is highly lucrative. Organized by Somali kingpins and bankrolled by shadowy international criminal organizations, piracy yields a high rate of return. In 2011 alone, ransom payments totaled a reported $135 million.
A recently released report from a study by the Oceans Beyond Piracy project and the International Maritime Bureau said that “555 seafarers were taken hostage in 2011; 645 hostages were captured in 2010 and remained captive during 2011; [and] 6 tourists and aid workers were kidnapped on land.” The Human Cost of Somali Piracy 2011 study estimated the average length of captivity for hostage seafarers was 8 months. And records show that 35 hostages died in 2011 as a result of being held in captivity by pirates.
The crew of the merchant vessel MV Faina stand on the deck after a U.S. Navy request to check on their health and welfare. The Belize-flagged cargo ship owned and operated by Kaalbye Shipping, Ukraine, was seized by pirates Sept. 25 and forced to proceed to anchorage off the Somali Coast. The ship is carrying a cargo of Ukrainian T-72 tanks and related military equipment. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass communication Specialist 2nd Class Jason R. Zalasky/Released)
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.”
The Hard Line
Joyce and Horwood soon locked horns: “Does he [Horwood] not think,” Joyce said, “that the thing for a responsible employer to do, if two dozen employees are captured and a ransom is demanded—they may well be executed—is to pay it, as opposed to the view of [non-governmental organizations], which appear on the whole to want to leave them to die?” Although unrelated to piracy, the debate had touched on the case of Khalil Dale, a British employee of the Red Cross who had been kidnapped in Pakistan and executed three months later for want of ransom payment. “No,” Horwood replied. “I think that paying is profoundly irresponsible. There are even more extreme cases than that of an employer. It is difficult to tell someone whose loved one has been kidnapped—it would be difficult for me if one of my loved ones had been kidnapped—and other members of the family, ‘You should not pay.’ That is a terribly difficult thing to say to someone, face to face.” Horwood continued, “However, in the bigger picture, people are kidnapped because other people have paid ransoms, which paid for the boats and motherships and the lifestyle of the pirates that makes future ransoms, kidnaps and piracy much more likely. We must try to disrupt that business model. Trying to find a simple military solution is only half the answer. I am afraid that I think that the government’s instinct is right.”
Labour Party MP John Spellar, a former national officer for the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union, concurred with Horwood to the extent that “when someone pays a ransom, they put at risk the next vessel that goes through that region.” Spellar stated, “Is it easy? Of course it is not. A government that have traditionally taken a very hard line on [terrorist] hostage-taking—the government of Israel—recently came to an agreement regarding an exchange of hostages for prisoners in Israeli jails. I do not underestimate the difficulty of the issue.” Spellar continued, “There is still considerable truth in the Kipling line that the problem with paying the Dane-geld is that you never stop paying the Dane. I fully acknowledge those who say, ‘Look, if a member of my family was involved or taken hostage, I would want to pay, or I would want the government to make the concession.’ But governments have look[ed] at the issue in a different light.”
Focus on Prevention
The House of Commons’ debate ended about a half-hour later with no action taken. In closing remarks, Ottaway noted, “We have had interesting divisions on ransoms. The truth of the matter is that there is no answer; both arguments are right. There is merit in both sides of the argument. Frankly, it is better to focus on preventing capture than on paying a ransom.”
Parliamentary discussions can portend governmental actions that will affect maritime-security contractors, including those based in the U.S. The CEO of the leading American provider of embarked-security teams in the HRA follows the ransom/no-ransom debate with interest. “This issue surrounding ‘to pay or not pay ransoms’ is very complicated,” commented Jim Jorrie of ESPADA Marine Services in San Antonio, Texas. “It’s easy, in one sense, to take a stance, ‘We won’t pay ransoms and we’ll have more aggressive military action against the pirates.’ Conversely, I don’t believe the seafarers’ unions and crew-management companies would stand idly by knowing their members are in additional peril because of a compromised ability to secure their release from pirates. That is, that insurance companies, ships’ owners or shipping companies could throw up their hands and say, ‘International policy won’t allow us to pay ransom to get our guys back.’ I don’t think you’re going to be able to hide behind that.” Jorrie continued, “I think the seafarers would go to their unions, and potentially that could translate into massive work stoppages in routes in the high-risk area…We all want to find a silver bullet that will solve the problem of piracy. However, this is a dynamic situation. In the immediate future, we need to apply a sustained blend of commercial, political, and military resources.”
Contributing writer and ex-paratrooper Martin Kufus is a planning and communication consultant for ESPADA. His maritime-security article “Cyber-Spies Target MARSEC Secrets; ‘Sputnik’ Moment Ahead?” is posted at the UK maritime website (oceanuslive.org). The International Maritime Bureau and Oceans Beyond Piracy’s June 22 report The Human Cost of Somali Piracy 2011 can be read at the Oceans Beyond Piracy website (oceansbeyondpiracy.org).