Mission Against Piracy

The Revd Tom Heffer secretary-general of the Mission to Seafarers has released a heartfelt and compelling statement on the need to fight Piracy:

AS I joined shipping’s great and good at the International Maritime Organization’s headquarters in London to witness United Nation’s chief Ban Ki-moon stamping his authority on the anti-piracy plan, half a world away in Mombasa a young Turk on his first voyage told my colleagues that he was ripping up his contract rather than venture out into the Indian Ocean ever again.

Who would blame him? With more than 700 seafarers held captive, pirate motherships attacking with ever greater audacity, ferocity and impunity, and multiplying reports of torture and abuse against hostages, it has been a grim start to the year of orchestrating the response to piracy.

At its outset, I sent an investigative team to Mombasa to talk to frontline staff at our Mission to Seafarers station, hear from officers and ratings on board ships and to quiz the new commander of the EU Naval Force, Rear Admiral Juan Rodriguez, about plans for Orchestration Year. What they reported reinforces the mission’s belief that there is an urgent need to provide reliable defence for the men and women daily sent into harm’s way.

As everybody in the business now knows, where no effective security is offered by either flag states or shipowners, vessels fall back on make-do deterrents such as water cannon, ‘scarecrow’ lookouts and ringlets of frizzy grey razor wire.

“We try not to think about it, but there’s every chance that we’ll be caught this trip,” said chief officer Sotero Flores. “We pass through the no-go areas and just hope we won’t be attacked. We have wire and we’ll perform double watches, but we can’t deal with rocket-propelled grenades, or automatic weapons. We can do nothing but pray we don’t get caught.”

Committed to promoting the wellbeing of seafarers everywhere, the mission believes that the most precious cargo on board any vessel is its crew, and it has always held that the shipping industry’s duty of care extends to giving training, equipment and support commensurate with exposure to hazard. Where necessary, this must include increasing security to levels necessary to bring vessels safely through pirate waters.

Shipowners cannot disown this duty or delegate it to governments. To put it bluntly they are your ships, your commercial ventures and your crews. And that means their safety is ultimately your responsibility.

If added cost means consumers pay more for the goods transported, then so be it — globalisation brings responsibilities as well as benefits.

It is thus heartening that the International Chamber of Shipping last week took a stand by shifting its policy on the deployment of armed guards. However, this does not excuse governments from a duty to order their navies to crack down harder. They know where the motherships are and they could frustrate many pirate operations.

Their continuing failure to do so lets crews down badly, said the mission’s man in Mombasa, Michael Sparrow. “Seafarers think that not enough is being done, and question: “Why aren’t the warships doing more?’

“Some think the EU naval forces are a joke. They don’t go after the motherships; they don’t intervene. Somebody said to me: ‘The pirates are just laughing at them’. And if one presses the naval officers, they admit privately: ‘We could do more, we could stop the motherships, but the politicians don’t allow us to’.”

At the sharp end, Father Sparrow, a former seafarer and for 10 years the mission’s chaplain in Mombasa, spends his days helping crews and their families. At present, he is giving post-trauma assistance to 24 newly-released members of the Golden Wave crew, held captive for four months.

In the port of Mombasa, seafarer after seafarer told the mission team that they would end their contracts if they could, that they never see a patrolling warship and that they want the close protection of sea marshals embedded on board. Some said they felt so vulnerable that they want to carry weapons themselves. Others wanted a private “industry navy” running escort convoys.

Nearly every one said he had concealed from his family the worrying fact that he was sailing into these perilous waters.

Just days after pirates murdered Filipino seafarer Farolito Vallega on Beluga Nomination, in Mombasa, Adm Rodriguez told the mission that he was satisfied that Operation Atalanta was achieving its objective — to ensure UN food aid gets through to Somalia.

“We are carrying out our primary task of escorting World Food Programme vessels. We don’t assume that we can solve the problem at sea, because the root causes are on land,” he said.

In everyday life, don’t the police usually tackle the perpetrators of crime and leave its causes to government to resolve? Father Sparrow is adamant that piracy needs to be tackled primarily where it is happening — at sea.

“They need to get on and deal with piracy as a separate issue — it’s easy to say that a solution depends on creating a stable government in Somalia, but that could be 10 years down the line and seafarers have the problem now,” he said.

“There’s a feeling that they are left on their own in these waters. Many have told me that they don’t see the navy ships when they’re out at sea and it is contributing to the trepidation they already feel. Sometimes ships call for help and there is no help within reach.”

Father Sparrow sees a desperate game of catch-up. The pirates are now highly organised. They are orchestrated while the forces sent to stop them are not.

“Right now the response is anything but orchestrated. Even within EU Navfor, national navies don’t follow the same rules of engagement. Some have been arresting pirates; some just dump the pirates’ weapons in the sea and send the pirates off in a boat. The action is not the same from everybody.”

The storming of Samho Jewelry by South Korean commandos introduced a decisive new note. In Mombasa, Adm Rodriguez distanced himself, reminding the mission team that South Korea was not linked to EU Navfor.

At the same time, he was clear that the EU force remained content with its narrow World Food Programme-nannying mandate, while it opposes civilian ships adopting their own armed security, despite the deterrence this can provide.

“Some member flag states have authorised armed personnel to work on merchant vessels and they have been quite successful in this regard. However, the European Union does not support armed guards on board vessels, or giving seafarers arms,” he said.

Where does this leave the seafarer? Still exposed, still vulnerable and still relying on the dummies, water pistols and the frizz of wire. And while few would support Jacob Stolt-Nielsen’s call for the extra-judicial slaughter of pirates at sea, few want to see HMS Cornwall just releasing them to terrorise seafarers another day.

A classic naval role is to protect trade routes but, in today’s Indian Ocean, this is not being done. Yet seafarers are not warfarers, so giving them weapons and telling them to get on with it is not the answer. Unless or until governments get their act together, therefore, the shipping community is left with the simple choice — embed trained and authorised armed guards on the ships, or provide appropriate escort vessels .

Above all, let us stop talking and, like the arch-prevaricator Hamlet, finally decide to take up arms against the sea of troubles and, by opposing, end them. It may not be an orchestrated response, but it will send the right message to seafarers — and to the pirates.

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