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US backs private guards, discourages ransoms in Africa pirate fight

Oct 3, 2014 03:42 PM
A U.S. Navy boarding team approaches a suspected pirate vessel in the Gulf of Aden in 2011. The Obama administration recently announced an updated anti-piracy policy that promises continued U.S. military involvement and advocates for better-quality armed guards aboard commercial ships.

Courtesy U.S. Navy

A U.S. Navy boarding team approaches a suspected pirate vessel in the Gulf of Aden in 2011. The Obama administration recently announced an updated anti-piracy policy that promises continued U.S. military involvement and advocates for better-quality armed guards aboard commercial ships.

Renewing the U.S. effort to wipe out piracy in the Horn of Africa and Gulf of Guinea, the White House has drawn up a new mix of carrot-and-stick diplomatic, economic and military measures.

In its 23-page Counter Piracy and Maritime Security Action Plan, the Obama administration says “the paramount goal of the United States is to safeguard U.S. citizens and U.S. interests.” No mention is made of Asia’s pirate zones including the South China Sea or Strait of Malacca.

The administration says the scourge can be eradicated only by improved economic, political and social conditions in the countries involved, as well as through crime-fighting and military measures.

The document acknowledges that pirates on the east coast of Africa seize ships and sailors for ransom while the west coast trademark is theft coupled with violence. The strategy proposes slightly different maritime security approaches for the two regions.

For the east coast, the main strategy for the U.S. is to be the leader in the multinational Contact Group on Piracy. Other proposals include:                                                                                                                                    
• Putting pressure on commercial shipping to improve best management practices.
• Pushing for better-trained and better-equipped security teams on board.
• Making the U.S. the leader of the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) maritime security group.
• Pushing for international standards for armed security personnel.
• Promoting partnerships within the maritime industry.
• Keeping significant naval forces offshore.

Criminal prosecutions will continue and ransoms will be discouraged. “Ransom payments lead to future hijackings of ships at sea, and future hijackings lead to additional ransom payments,” the document states.

The U.S. will work to “disrupt and dismantle pirate bases ashore” and establish a maritime patrol unit for Somalia.

For the Gulf of Guinea, the main strategy is to increase the severity of punishment and work with regional naval and law enforcement agencies. Other proposals seek to develop industry partnerships and “require U.S-flagged vessels to implement effective measures to protect against pirates and armed robbers operating at sea.”

The White House plan says that private, properly trained armed security on ships must be encouraged in the Gulf of Guinea, even though many states in the region prohibit weapons on commercial vessels and lack the resources to tackle the problem. Also, “corrupt officials may be complicit in and actively encouraging maritime attacks,” the security plan states. To counter this, armed convoys and/or regional maritime patrols are suggested.

Experienced mariners with specialized security knowledge praise the administration for taking a hard look at the scourge and highlighting the serious impact on maritime commerce. However, they say the proposals are too heavy on political analysis and long-term strategic objectives and light on more immediate, practical solutions.

“The prime aim is to safeguard U.S. interests and seafarers, and this means doing whatever it takes,” said Klaus Luhta, chief of staff of the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots (MM&P). “If that means acting on our own, so be it. This policy is all well and good, but doesn’t have enough teeth or actionable items.”

Wayne Long, managing partner of Seafarer International, a maritime consulting company, said piracy is a non-governmental issue for the United States. “It’s a waste of resources for the U.S. government to be taking all the time and trouble to tackle the issue,” he said.

Long said that the situations are different on the east and west coasts of Africa.

“On the Gulf of Guinea, the answer lies in the countries of the region eradicating the pirates’ nests,” he said. “The locations of their bases are known — they are mostly in the swampy areas along the coasts. What complicates the situation is that some governments are helping the pirates.”

In the Horn of Africa, he said no one wants to try attacking the ports because of “Black Hawk Down” memories, referring to U.S. involvement in Somalia in the 1990s.

“The answer there is to have armed security teams on the vessels,” he said. “Four shooters on a ship will stop them. Defensive measures such as water cannons have failed. No ship with an armed security team has been hijacked.”

Luhta agrees, as does Capt. Jim Staples of the OceanRiver LLC maritime security consultancy.

“That’s absolutely right,” Staples said. “But we have had to deal with the added difficulty of no uniform standard of training and competency for security teams. Loads of fly-by-night companies started up, undercutting each other and it got to the point where we found it wasn’t worth dealing with them.”

“Mariners are leaving the industry because of piracy,” Staples said. “They see no point in living with the threat of being hijacked and kept in appalling conditions while the owner haggles over a ransom that suits him.”

On the controversial issue of ransoms, Luhta said it was “a gray area. If it means that hostages will be released, we have no problem with that.”

Closer cooperation with the United Nations and IMO on fighting piracy does not impress the experts much. Staples summed up the reaction: “The U.N. and the IMO have not done much about it.”

The MM&P is calling for better support for U.S.-flagged ships as a way to strengthen the merchant marine and compensate mariners in risky areas.

“We want reimbursement for all U.S. ships sailing in risky waters and not just those carrying government cargoes,” Luhta said.

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