PIRACY | When is a mercenary not a mercenary?

Justin Stares | Lloyd’s List | 2010.10.12

WHEN writing about sensitive subjects it is often handy to start by referring to an impartial source: the dictionary.

A mercenary, according to dictionary.com, is “a professional soldier hired to serve in a foreign army” or alternatively “any hireling”. Quite a broad definition.

EU Navfor, the grouping charged to fighting the piracy scourge, is not keen on the term. “That’s not a very nice word,” said a Brussels-based Navfor source. “I would be careful when using it. Think about the contractors used in Iraq and Afghanistan. Would you call them mercenaries?”

Definitions have become sensitive given the shift in security arrangements on board ships transiting the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean. “Contractors” have become a reality. While still frowned upon, the explosion in mercenaries now employed in the region reflects an uncomfortable fact: governments are unwilling and unable to commit the necessary “assets” for protecting merchant shipping and tackling lawlessness within Somalia.

Beyond the carefully shaped statistics designed to create hope (remember reports that the ‘number of successful attacks is diminishing’?) there is a harsh reality: piracy is getting worse. Energetic navies and canny best practices are helping, but the number of crew held hostage and ships hijacked at any one time in Somalia is creeping up. And that’s without even mentioning the growth of piracy elsewhere in the world.

If the situation were improving, why would mercenaries be necessary?

“EU Navfor is doing a fabulous job running the [internationally recommended transit] corridor, but that is only 7% of the area the pirates are operating in,” said Kuba Szymanski, secretary-general of the International Ship Managers’ Association.

“What about the other 93%? It’s not protected. This is when frustration sets it. What do we do? We hire mercenaries. I personally think this is terrible. We should not be allowed to take justice into our own hands. But the fact is the causes of piracy are not being dealt with. All we are doing is trying to extinguish fires. We’re running around like headless chickens.”

The use of mercenaries has by no means been officially approved. In rare cases, such as on Dutch-flagged ships, mercenaries remain illegal.

“There is a real potential that they will complicate the situation. How do we know they are not pirates?” said EU Navfor chief of staff Colonel Richard Spencer. “If I had my choice, they would not be there.”

But Europe’s unwillingness to collectively ban the practice is in itself a recognition that there is no alternative.

Both Brussels lawmakers and national government ministers would no doubt argue, as they often do, that any such ban would simply lead to flagging out. Flags of convenience elsewhere around the world are unlikely to follow an EU-led ban if it resulted in new ship registration business.

The issue of mercenaries, however, is a fence too narrow to sit on. If you’re not against them, you condone them: quite a stance for a bloc which prides itself on occupying the moral high ground.

Less scrupulous ship operators can pick up an armed African mercenary for $100 a day, according to reports in this newspaper. If you want your shooter to come with the fig leaf of respectability — a trained Englishman perhaps — that will cost you thousands.

Either way, they and you will be sailing into a legal void of unknown liabilities and limitless opportunity for disaster.

Amazingly, ship operators and mercenaries are today drawing up their own rules of engagement. What do these fascinating documents contain? Are mercenaries under instructions not to shoot anyone who doesn’t have a hook for a hand? Will their bonuses be halved if they accidentally kill a fisherman? Or doubled if they shoot a bad guy halfway up his boarding ladder?

Industry has been grappling with these awkward moral hazards for the last two years. Some shipowners’ associations (Germany, for example) and maritime conglomerates (such as AP Moller-Maersk) have decided that mercenaries can simply not be tolerated and will not be used.

Others, such as the European Community Shipowners Associations, are pleading with governments to do more. “Fighting crime is the duty of the international community not shipowners,” said Ecsa secretary-general Alfons Guinier. “Protection should be for free.”

Maritime mercenaries are in such demand in part because on-board teams such as the EU Navfor vessel protection detachments have proven effective. EU Navfor officers boast that none of the aid ships destined for Somalia’s starving millions has been hijacked by pirates. All are closely protected.

But few governments are willing to extend this service to merchant shipping. Those that have — such as Belgium — have attached so many strings (not to mention the cost) that the private sector has not taken up the offer. Are cash-strapped defence ministries going to offer on-board protection for free?

If you operate a vessel, such as a dredger, that is classed as high risk, you do today have the right to ask EU Navfor for special protection.

Your application will be fed into a matrix and then compared with the available assets. But as one Navfor source admitted frankly: “we have no spare capacity”.

The EU force (around seven vessels and a few aircraft) even when combined with other navies in the region, does not add up to 30 ships. Given the millions of square kilometres pirates have to roam, it is, in the words of one industry source, a bit like patrolling the US-Canada border on a scooter.

Recognition that the area was too big to police came early this year. “It is impossible, impossible to eradicate piracy. We are not here to defeat it in the Somali Basin. We have neither the assets nor, given that huge expanse of ocean, the time to do that,” Rear Admiral Peter Hudson told a press conference in the EU Council of Ministers building.

“This is not a problem that is going to get solved by racing around the Indian ocean with expensive warships,” he said.

In retrospect, this admission had a natural corollary: if you want better protection, do it yourself.

Today’s sorry state of affairs is a far cry from the proud beginnings of the Operation Atalanta back in 2008. It is, let us not forget, the first joint EU naval operation.

In the first months, EU Navfor officers noted with pleasure that no-one had died as the result of piracy. There was, initially, the hope that the mere presence of navy frigates would be enough to frighten pirates away. The policy was one of deterrence.

This timid mission statement was soon changed so that navies could “interrupt” pirate acts, but by this time new challenges were already apparent.

Pirates realised they faced no punishment if caught in the act. Embarrassed navy officers, the contents of their human rights courses still fresh in their minds, were forced to drop them back off on the beach. European governments saw with horror they might be opening the door to a wave of asylum-seekers if they brought pirates back to stand trial.

But no sooner had trials been set up within the region than this policy too proved ineffective. Imprisonment is a risk worth taking if you are a prospective pirate in lawless, desperate Somalia.

No longer able to tie their hands and throw them back into the sea, the EU has engaged in a war with pirates it cannot hope to win. It has also inadvertently triggered the militarisation of the Gulf of Aden.

Those who follow Afghanistan might have noticed this month’s decision by the government to disarm several bands of private sector “contractors”.

Mercenaries are, by definition, in it for the money. Condoning the outsourcing of security for a key maritime corridor could easily backfire.

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