Piracy in Focus: Perspective of a Political Analyst

Peter Chalk (Ph.D. in Political Science, University of British Columbia, Canada) is a senior political analyst at the Rand Corporation, dealing with transnational security threats, evolving trends in national and international terrorism, and international organized crime.

Question: Piracy is not a new phenomenon in the region. Why is it back in the news? Have there been more attacks in recent months or is it the high profile of attacks?

Dr. Chalk: The reason I think that piracy has emerged in the news at the moment is twofold. First, because it’s occurring in a geopolitically strategic area of the world, mainly off the horn of Africa, which has immediate implications for what is going on around the Arabian Peninsula. Second, because the capabilities of the pirates today seem to have expanded considerably from what they were in the past. There has been a lot of Somali activity that is been close to shore, but basically that has been directed against fishing trawlers and has been fairly small scale in nature, and it’s been justified at least from the Somali’s point of view, as violation of sovereign fishing rights in sovereign waters. But what we are seeing now is that the capability of the pirates has extended to such degree that they are operating far from shore, up to 500 nautical miles, which means that a huge slot of maritime waters is potentially at risk. They have also demonstrated and proved the capacity to hijack very large vessels, take them back to safe areas and then successfully negotiate ransom payments for the return of the ship, its crew members and its contents. And the scale of the ransom payments has gone up in correlation with the size of the vessels that have been seized. So now we are seeing ransom payments around 5 million dollars, where is previously they were only about four or five hundred thousand dollars at a maximum. I think it’s a combination of the type of attacks that are occurring, the type of vessels that are being apprehended, and the actual strategic area where these attacks are now taking place.

Question: Are we approaching a threshold and if so, how close are we to the point at which piracy will become a large enough problem that governments will take notice and undertake strong action?

Dr. Chalk: Already governments are taking notice with respect to what is going on of the Horn of Africa, which is being reflected by the dispatch of an EU flotilla that is also being accompanied by the Navies of several countries around the world, and I understand that Japan is now also offered to lend additional efforts to support antipiracy patrols in the region. So governments are taking notice and again I think that’s reflective of the particular area in which piracy is occurring. But if you are looking at this in a global sense, I don’t think that piracy has at all approached a threshold where it is going to attract sustained government attention. In other places like Southeast Asia, there are bilateral and trilateral security agreements between countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore but they are fairly small scale at least in comparison to what is going on off the Horn of Africa. And I think that the economic cost of piracy when it’s measured against the overall value of maritime commercial trade is a drop in the ocean. So at least from an economic standpoint and if you are looking at this from a global perspective with respect to the response by the international community at large, I don’t think it has approached the threshold level yet. And I have to wonder how long that the dispatched naval forces around the Horn of Africa will be sustained. I think that this is a short term response, and I doubt that it will be sustained over the long term.

I think that two factors could change that. One, if there was credible evidence that pirates in some manner are actually now collaborating with terrorists or that terrorist were mimicking the techniques of pirates in order to further their designs. That would obviously give piracy a threat potential that is more than just economic in nature, and would be more likely to attract the attention of the international community. The other factor here is that if an act of piracy were to result in a very large scale environmental damage, such as a major oil slick, that also could illicit increased global attention. For the time being, I think that it’s only really going to attract the attention of interested parties. So in Southeast Asia at least it’s going to be an issue that is addressed by likeminded states not by the international community at large.  And even of the Horn of Africa, while we have an international presence there, I think over the long term that will not be seen as a prominent deployment. I don’t think that piracy, at least at this point in time, has approached the level of it being considered a strategic threat, and that is what would be required in order to illicit a sustained international response.    

Question: Piracy has long plagued the waters of Southeast Asia. Can you talk about the difference between piracy of the coast of Somalia and piracy in Southeast Asia? What lessons can be carried over to Somalia?

Dr. Chalk: The Malacca Straits were a pirate hotspot as were the waters around the Indonesian archipelago, and essentially the matter by which it was dealt with was that the interested parties in that part of the world, mainly Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore got together and established a series of bilateral and trilateral agreements that provided for the sharing of intelligence, joint maritime patrols, and the provision of technical assistance particularly given by Singapore to Indonesia. There were also a number of wider regional agreements that were enacted and that included states such as the Philippines and Thailand, notably the eye in the sky initiative which provided for a limited regime of aerial surveillance over the Malacca Straits. Japan was also ready, willing and able to provide costal surveillance assets and patrol boats for antipiracy operations in the Malacca Straits. Japan’s reason was that it is absolutely dependent on the Malacca Straits both for imports and exports. So, you had sustained regional, bilateral and to a certain extent international cooperation to deal with the piracy problem in that region.

I think the key lesson here is that cooperation is absolutely essential, so is the sharing of intelligence. But really, there are few similarities between what was going on in the Straits of Malacca as compared to the Horn of Africa; the two are very different. One, the area is far greater around the Horn of Africa, particularly now that pirates are operating up to 500 nautical miles away from shore. So the expanse of maritime area that needs to be covered is that much greater, which makes the joint bilateral patrols far more difficult. The other major difference of course is that you have the governance void off the Horn of Africa, and notably Somalia, which you do not have in Southeast Asia. And you have to remember that piracy around the Horn of Africa is essentially an extension of the lawlessness that has plagued Somalia since the fall of the Siad Barre dictatorship in 1991. And until that is addressed you are never going to deal with the lawlessness at sea, so at this point what we are doing is basically addressing piracy from the end point of the problem, mainly attacks as they occur at sea. What really needs to be done is more sustained effort at looking at the practice of fostering piracy from land and the biggest problem we have here is the lack of intelligence and the lack of sustained footprint in Somalia, it’s basically a gaping hole. So, more effort is needed to restore basic civility and governance in Somalia before you are going to see a sustained drop in the incidents of piracy emanating from that region. But having said that, I think the biggest lesson that can be drawn from Southeast Asia is that if states are active and are prepared to share information and work together, piracy can be dealt with.

The problem is that states usually cling very jealously to sovereign jurisdiction rights. Even though in Southeast Asia you had joint patrols, there was never any indication of allowing to pursuit pirates into territorial waters. If the pirates were being chased by a Malaysian antipiracy patrol they would just quickly slip into Indonesian waters. Because notions of territorial sovereignty are so sacrosanct in Southeast Asia, the Malaysians would never violate that, and that worked to the direct advantage of pirates. I think the same issues of territorial jurisdiction would certainly arise with some East African states like Kenya, Tanzania and possibly Sudan as well. Basically we are trying to deal with a 21st century form of piracy by clinging to the 16th century conception of sovereignty. So until we get over that, and not only with respect to piracy but all sorts of transitional threats, we will never definitively crack them. 

Question: What do you think about having armed contractors or military personal on board to protect the ships?

Dr. Chalk: It’s problematic. You got issues that need to be dealt with in terms of rules of engagement. It is not apparent that armed contractors would be covered by maritime insurance should they be injured. Another difficulty is having armed personnel going into territorial waters, because a lot of pirate attacks actually take place in territorial waters. Many states would be very disinclined to sanction armed ships coming into territorial waters, even if it was to deal with acts of piracy. Unless you have very strict rules of engagement and work out the legal complications of having armed vessels passing through territorial waters, the legal and the insurance problems that might arise could be problematic. The other aspect of this is that it could, counter-intuitively, actually encourage a greater lethality on the part of pirates if they know that they are going to be confronted by armed force when boarding a vessel. They may increasingly start to open fire immediately when trying to board a vessel rather than seeking to apprehend that vessel. So there are a number of issues that need to be covered, again it’s a stop gap type of response, it might act as a deterrent to some degree, but I certainly don’t think that it will solve the piracy problem. One also has to consider how many of these ships need to be armed and guarded. There is an enormous amount of maritime traffic that goes up and around the Horn of Africa and through the Gulf of Eden. You can’t expect all of these vessels to be armed. More practical measures would be for ships to stay in touch with one another in pirate prone areas, installing basic navigation systems and nonlethal defenses such as perimeter fences. Also, greater efforts by the international community to address the land based conditions that give rise to piracy. All of that needs to be addressed; I think those would be a far more expeditious use of resources than actually arming vessels themselves.

Question: In your opinion, does the presence of government warships in the region help reduce piracy?

Dr. Chalk: Well, I think there is a certain deterrent factor. Certainly there have been a number of attempted hijackings that have been thwarted by the international navies, but again, it’s not a silver bullet. There are too many vessels to be guarded, the area is too great and we need to look at the economics of actually deploying these vessels in the region, how long will that be sustained. Certainly not very long should a regional conflict breakout that involves the dispatch of naval frigates. At this point in time there is enough heightened international attention and there are enough available vessels to patrol the area that we are seeing the dispatch of international navies to the region, but those are unique conditions that I don’t think will necessarily be replicated in the future. And as I said, even having the navies that we do have there it’s certainly not enough to safeguard all the vessels that are transiting through the area. So I think it’s more of a symbolic act of international community rather than one that will have a practical impact on the level of piracy that is taking place in the region.

Question: What should be done in the short term?

Dr. Chalk: In the short term I think that we need to have greater awareness on the part of ship owners for adhering to basic security protocols. I think maritime insurance would play a very important role here. Incentives could be made to insure that ship owners adhere to basic security protocols particularly when traveling in dangerous parts of the world. They could be rewarded by lower insurance premiums, and contrarily, should a vessel be attacked and it transpired that a vessel was not adhering to the basic security protocols insurance premiums could be escalated markedly, not only for the ship in question but also for the other ships associated with this particular company. When I am talking about the basic security protocols I mean things such as: insuring that the ship has an installed navigation system, has nonlethal defenses, maintaining a regular antipiracy watch, adhering to warnings that are issued by the international maritime bureau, keeping in close contact with other vessels in the region, not violating the suggested stand-off distances from shore which are being put out by the United States and by the International Maritime Organization. So, those types of issues would be of benefit in the short term.

Question: What about the long term?

Dr. Chalk: In the long term, as I said the only way you really going to deal with the issue of piracy of the horn of Africa is to deal with the governance void in Somalia. It’s a waxing issue, it’s a very complicated one, but we can’t ignore it not only in terms of threats at sea but also threats on land. There is a growing concern that Somalia could play host to a number of sub-state actors ranging from drug traffickers to terrorists. So at some stage the international community is going to have to address what is going on in Somalia because until that happens lawlessness in the Siberian Portal about WEB-Security region will continue to proliferate. Even though it is a difficult issue to confront, the longer we wait the more problematic it will be to address. So I think even though it’s a long-term solution, effort should be put in place immediately to look at possible ways of addressing the conflict in the region and restoring governance and civility to that particular state.

-- 01/22
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