Why Somali pirates have New Delhi babus worried over security of Indian coastline

Somali pirates drive foreign ships perilously close to Indian shores. New Delhi wants to shift that route. Will it succeed?


Shreerupa Mitra-Jha | July 26, 2014

Captain Phillips, a recent Hollywood film about Somalian piracy, elicited enthusiastic response from Indian audiences. In the popular imagination of movie-goers across the world, films on piracy belong to the genre of action thriller carrying with them a veneer of the unreal. However, piracy is one of the most serious albeit underplayed maritime security challenges that India and the world at large face today. Not only does a significant proportion of India’s trade pass through concentrated-pirate corridors but also the demarcation of a zone called the high risk area (HRA) has brought armed vessels dangerously close to the western coast of India.

An improbable war turf
The oceans have been spaces of contestation for at least as long as the practice of sea faring. Piracy in its modern avatar has its antecedents in the 16th and the 17th century with the emergence of centralised governments and the mercantilist system and the consequent scramble to consolidate economic supremacy in rivalries between states. The accumulation of resources through colonial trade indicated the strength of a nation which spurred the attempt by states to monopolise seas and its trade routes. In the absence of national armies, European sovereigns employed large number of privateers, through mercantilist companies and issued licenses called ‘letters of marque’, permitting them to capture merchant ships and enemy vessels.

The ‘golden age of piracy’ was roughly from 1670 to 1730. The insecurity on high seas led to the signing of treaties in favour of ‘trade by diplomacy’, built with African slave labour which accumulated far stable wealth. However, the privateers, stripped of their livelihood, continued to wage warfare on the oceans but this time without their ‘licenses’. This is not to suggest that there was no non-western piracy but the organised, institutionalised piracy distinctive especially of the Somalian context had its origin in European colonialism.

Somali piracy – a typical case
The piracy track off the Horn of Africa and along the Gulf of Aden in eastern Africa (popularly known as Somali piracy) has attracted the most attention and can be distinguished from other contemporaneous forms of piracy both for its geographical scale, its violence and its typical business model. International Maritime Bureau (IMB) data suggests that one out of every two vessels that reported piracy-related incident had been off the Horn of Africa (at the peak, 96% of hijackings were taking place along this track). The magnitude of piracy off the coast of Somalia is also noteworthy, where the catchment area has gradually expanded from close to the Somali shore deep into the western Indian Ocean. The farthest pirate attack took place 3,655 km from the coast of Somalia in 2010. Though reported incidents of Somalian piracy go back to the 1980s, the hijacking of Motor Vessel (MV) Feisty Gas in 2005, is an important incident that marked the beginning of the piracy-for-ransom model typical of Somalian piracy.

A large portion of India’s trade, worth $160 billion annually, including oil and fertilizer, passes through the Gulf of Aden. About 20-24% of Indian ships pass through this track and most foreign-flagged vessels have Indian nationals who make 7% of the world’s seafarers. In a clear case of disproportionate impact, 25% of all the hostages taken thus far have been Indians.

The Somalian piracy can be distinguished from piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, the emerging piracy track on the western coast of Africa. In 2013, IMB recorded that most of the western Africa attacks were on ports or anchorages and not on the high seas. According to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, piracy can “only occur beyond the limits of the territorial sea, which in most cases extends 12 nautical miles from the coastline”. Therefore, technically some of these illegal activities can be categorised as maritime robbery and not piracy, which involves stealing from the ship’s stockpile and is by and large opportunistic in nature, while typically Somalian piracy holds back the crew as well as the mother ship for ransom – it has an elaborate business model. Sometimes the mother ship is hijacked for attacking other vessels.
Collective (Ir)responsibility
With the fall of the dictatorial Siad Barre regime, and the creation of Puntland, chaos ensued over the 1,600 km of coastline of Puntland. Large-scale illegal fishing, by states as diverse as Spain, South Korea and Egypt, pushed traditional fishermen to the brink of starvation. While illegal fishing depleted the coastline, capitalising on the continuing civil war, European companies found it profitable to dump hazardous material on the coast at a cost of as little as $2.50 a tonne (opposed to $1,000 a tonne for a similar act in Europe).

What began as a desperate attempt to protect the coastline by the fishermen soon turned to a nefarious, illegal enterprise spreading its tentacles much beyond the shores of impoverished Somalia. This grim situation has been poignantly captured in Captain Phillips when Richard Phillips, the captain of an American ship played by Tom Hanks, asked the Somalian pirate Muse, “There got to be something other than fishing and kidnapping people.” Muse plaintively responds, “Maybe in America, Irish (Tom Hanks), maybe in America.” The Somalian business model heavily depends on onshore infrastructure facilities to conduct ransom negotiations by businessmen, clan elders, terrorist groups and government officials. It is understood that financial backers of Somali piracy split 70-90% of the piracy proceeds among themselves while a meagre amount goes to the foots soldiers, the pirates.

A costly war
Piracy costs the global economy nearly $18 bn a year – a hidden tax on world trade, according to a World Bank estimate. A report by Oceans Beyond Piracy, a think tank launched in 2010 to develop a response to maritime piracy, placed the total cost for security equipment and guards in 2012 between $1.65 and $2.06 billion.

However, through enhanced patrolling, best management practices (BMP) devised by the shipping industry, employment of armed escorts and speeding above 18 knots, piracy along the Somalia coast has been put under check. The major non-pirate fleet consisting of the EUNVFOR’s Operation Atlanta, Nato’s Ocean Shield and CTF-151 have been patrolling the Somali track. India, since 2008, has permanently stationed a warship at the Gulf of Aden for escorting merchant vehicles across nationalities. It has since serviced more than 2,000 vessels. According to international sources, the last capture by a major vehicle of the pirates was in May 2012.

A paradoxical situation
The present threat of piracy to India is peculiar. The HRA, a vast expanse of the Indian Ocean, is a classification which marks high concentration of piratical activities and stretches between Somalia in the west and India in the east. Originally the outer limit of the HRA was up to 65 degree east longitude but it was shifted to 78 degree east which has brought the HRA almost to the shores of the west coast of India. More than the piratical acts per se, the international responses to piracy have become more of a concern for India’s security.

A major fallout of the classification is the exorbitant hike in insurance premium of vessels travelling through the HRAs. Ships that enter the HRA through the Gulf of Aden are faced with the choice of taking a direct route through the HRA or re-routing along the Indian coast to avoid high insurance premium. In a curious case of suspicious exclusivity, the forms of insurance required for travelling through HRA is provided only by a forum of 13 undertakers based in London.

Also, the premiums come down following the deployment of armed guards on ships called vessel protection detachment (VPD) which opens the way for most providers of security to collude with insurance groups. The western coast of India, therefore, faces the dangerous situation of foreign-flagged armed ships transiting dangerously close to the shores through re-routing. This fact is particularly alarming for our security establishment owing to the fact that the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai were executed through the sea route. In 2012, nearly $300 million was spent on re-routing.

Additionally, since several countries including India do not allow embarkation or disembarkation at their ports with arms, floating armouries have emerged, which are arms-selling/lending shops on the sea. This has again emerged as a great security challenge for India. The escorts hired by shipping companies would rent arms before transiting through or around the HRA and deposit the arms on sea before disembarking on a port. A sizeable number of these floating armouries are operated by Sri Lankan and Pakistani companies.

VPDs assisting merchant vessels navigate high-concentration tracks, often come into conflict with Indian fishermen on the coasts. In October 2013, the police arrested the crew of MV Seaman Guard Ohio, an American-owned ship, for carrying arms and ammunition illegally. The ship’s captain informed that the armed escorts were deployed by the shipping company for potential pirate attacks on the HRA. The Enrica Lexie incident is yet another instance – the Italian marines killed two Indian fishermen, just 22 nautical miles off the coast. This is another instance of direct fallout of the changed HRA regulations. The matter is sub judice and its eventual outcome will influence the future deployment of VPDs.

Notwithstanding the advisory to ships against mistaking fishing activity up to 50 nautical miles from the country’s coastline for acts of piracy, ships continue transgressing fishing zones and the conflict between fishermen and merchant vessels have continued.

Don’t bring the pirates home
Under international law, an act of piracy has universal jurisdiction but most countries have not devised mechanisms to prosecute pirates. Between December 2010 and March 2011, the Indian Navy and Coast Guard neutralised four pirate ‘mother ships’ and captured 120 Somali pirates. Though it is a signatory to the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 1982, India faced problems in the effectively punishing the culprits in the absence of a domestic legislation. The Indian Penal Code at present lacks a proper definition of piracy and the quantum of punishment for pirates.

Though the ministry for external affairs has given notices for the introduction of the Anti-Piracy Bill 2012, it did not come up for discussions in any of the parliamentary sessions in 2013. The 120 Somali pirates are still lodged in Taloja jail, Navi Mumbai. Mauritius as well as Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania and Maldives have recently signed agreements with EU and UK to prosecute captured pirates. Besides, it was only in 2011 that the UN Security Council adopted a resolution which for the first time addressed the problem of hostage-taking by pirates. India till recently had nine hostages with the Somalian pirates, but one of the hostages was released in June this year.

India has been actively working towards rolling the longitude of HRA back to 65 degree but the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS), an international forum established in 2009 following UN Security Council Resolution 1,851 to tackle piracy, has not relented. In May, an Indian government team attended the CGPCS summit in New York and has managed to put the matter on the negotiating table again. The next CGPCS meet is scheduled in October. Given the politico-economic landscape of HRA, the negotiation for removing seas close to the western coast of India from the list of HRA will require serious diplomatic investment. Though there has been no piratical activities reported in the last two years, thriving businesses emerging around piracy – insurance premiums, floating armouries and VPDs – have ensured a multi-stakeholder interest in maintaining a status quo vis-à-vis the HRA.

(This story appeared in the July 16-31, 2014 print issue)



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