The long term solution to piracy lies in the world reverting to ships flying with the flag of their own nationality, not flags of convenience
Maritime piracy has resumed in full force after a lull. And it mainly affects the Indian seafarer in captivity. One reason for this is the standoff between Indian government and pirates on the issue of some Somalians in Indian custody. The Somalians demand that their colleagues be released, while the law in India will take its own course. This has left Indian seafarers to rot in terrible conditions. The Kenyan invasion of South Somalia, ignored in the Indian media despite the ancient ties with the Horn of Africa, has just increased the risks. The Indian seafarers are likely to, once again, become pawns in the conflict.
From torture and beatings to starvation, as well as being denied access to any form of interaction with the authorities, Indian seafarers are in a miserable condition. They will risk their lives due to economic compulsions, and more, on voyages in waters, where Indians have traditionally sailed. Whether by conventional “dhows”, or on modern ocean liners, they are the new targets, and the pirates roam from the Horn of Africa to the furthest reaches of the Southern Indian Ocean. With attacks from submarines and drones now making no difference between friend and foe, stuck on ships, retaliation is expected. Western forces seek a higher involvement of the Indian Navy.
Matters have reached a point where the demanded ransom “rates” for Indians in Somalian captivity is the same demanded from Europeans. In some cases, release is denied outright. In addition, the previous rule of “no bloodshed” is now being openly flouted, as is evident from the killing of two European tourists and kidnapping of others from the Swahili resorts in Northern Kenya near Somalia. Near death-type of torture is also being reported.
The Indian crew left behind from the ASPHALT VENTURE have still not returned, despite ransom being paid. In the case of another European owned ship with Indian seafarers onboard, the ransom amount, after almost being settled, has gone up to three times what it was a few weeks ago. This is because the insurance company of the owner refuses to come to the table anymore – having lost interest in the ship and cargo. The attack on what is called “Jubaland”, at the Southern end of Somalia, by multi-national forces, is one reason.
In the midst of all this, the Indian government and private ship-management agencies have clamped down on all information. Even the families of those affected are kept in the dark. A possible reason for this could be that the real ship-owner, who is often hidden behind the forwarding address of a tax-haven seldom comes forward to help. This is because his K&R (Kidnap and Ransom) Insurance and other covers are adequate to pay for the vessel and cargo. Therefore, losing the asset is certainly profitable for the actual ship owner in a recessionary market. Consequently, the whole of the Indian Ocean has been declared a War Zone.
Brutally explained, companies find it more profitable to collect insurance on a hijacked ship. Humans on board are often seen as cheap collateral damage from the third world countries. The ship owner, or the charterer, frankly stands to gain if the hijacked ship just sinks quietly with all people on board. Therefore, only media coverage and bad publicity are a worry; hence families are asked to keep quiet by threatening to deny them their dues. They even keep the regulatory authorities, in this case the Directorate General of Shipping, quiet or as make them an accomplice.
This is why, at a workshop on piracy in the Indian Ocean, one had the amazing experience of seeing on stage a combination of NATO, British Royal Navy, EU Forces representative, Ship owners and an International Union Representative. With the Indian Government and the Indian Navy in the audience, the point that our friends from the countries, which control international shipping legislation globally were making, sounded like this:
1) The older pirates, of Captain Blackbeard and Johnny Depp variety, were romantic creatures. Switch to slide of good-looking lady-killer type smiling white guy from Pirates of the Caribbean with sword.
2) The modern-day Indian Ocean pirates, of African variety, are terrible terrorist creatures. Switch to slide of scarred big black guy, with huge teeth grimacing, while wearing Islamic head-dress with AK-47.
3) The true pirates, wearing fine bespoke suits in global banking centres, were simply business executives. This person did not get a slide, and chose to be hidden behind global free trade anonymity armed with impeccable Queen’s English.
Leading from this, we were told that it is very important for Indians to persuade the Indian Navy to provide more security to all vessels in the area, while keeping the European Navy free. This led to surprised grins from some Indians present at the workshop for following reasons:
1) If the Indian Navy did not step out and guard the Indian Ocean, then supermarket shelves in Europe would not be able to carry the same discounted prices (as generations of people who did not really work hard for a living had got used to).
2) The European powers are busy with Libya, and maybe Syria, Iran or others would need their ships for those theatrics, or maybe even an un-announced invasion of Somalia by the Kenyans.
3) Most of all, it costs a lot of money to keep the European and NATO naval ships working in the Indian Ocean even when the dirty work below the deck was done by cheap labour from third world countries.
(Note – it is not only “flag of convenience” merchant ships that employ cheap seafarers to work in subhuman conditions. This practice is now followed by warships from developed countries also.)