June 12, 2008

Will piracy never be sunk?

15:30 | 11/ 06/ 2008

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti military commentator Ilya Kramnik) - The ongoing hijacking of ships off the Somalia coast long ago became a routine part of maritime life in the Arabian Sea. One of the most recent incidents was the seizure of the tanker Amiya Scan, which is owned by Dutch company Reider Shipping.

Pirates are still holding the crew consisting of four Russian officers (including the captain) and five Filipino sailors hostage. But the Amiya Scan incident could also prove to be a turning point. One of the major consequences of the hijacking incident was a UN Security Council resolution urging countries to pool their efforts in the struggle against piracy, and allowing foreign warships to enter Somalia's territorial waters in order to combat piracy.

Piracy is as old as seafaring and even ancient states suffered from this evil. Julius Caesar was probably one its most famous victims. Captured in the Aegean Sea in 75 BC, he was released for the princely ransom of 50 talents (the pirates had only asked for twenty, but Caesar insisted he was worth more), and promised his captors to come back and execute them, which he promptly did.

Piracy has accompanied the human race through its entire history. Its intensity has differed at different times, but it has never disappeared completely. Probably the most has been written about piracy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but we are interested in today's situation - in the causes of piracy, and ways of combating it.

It is important to establish the causes of piracy if we are to eliminate it. The number one reason is poverty. Many residents of coastal countries do not have a legal income. The main pirate-ridden regions - West Africa, Somalia, and South-East Asia - do not have high living standards, and in Somalia poverty is aggravated by a seemingly endless civil war and economic collapse. This is why residents of these areas become pirates.

But the different conditions in these regions affect the kind of piracy pursued there. In South-East Asia, for instance, pirates are usually after a precious cargo that they can sell at a profit. In war-torn Somalia, selling anything is too risky, and pirates prefer to take hostages and receive cash for their release there and then.

This second, hostage-taking form of piracy is also fuelled by an accepted ideology of non-resistance amongst the victims. This ideology considers human life an absolute value, and makes friends and relatives of hostages more willing to pay a ransom than risk their lives in a rescue operation.

A third reason is that the world's leading nations do not have a common strategy and tactics to deal with the scourge, which would prevent piracy in key regions. As a result, the pirates almost always go unpunished.

To lift Somalia out of its war and consequent poverty would take many years of work, enormous spending and almost definite loss of life in the peacemaking. Even then there would be no guarantee of success.

The second reason can be eliminated if negotiations with the pirates (who should be equated with terrorists) are held only to gain time and prepare a rescue operation. Deterrent measures deserve special mention. The prospect of landing in a European prison and an opportunity to ask for an asylum upon release is not likely to scare any pirate. Compared to this punishment, hanging from the yardarm or walking the plank, which were once wide spread in European navies, seem much more effective. But, once again, we should not forget that tougher punishment of pirates is not an option because it contradicts the principles of humanism preached by the leading Western countries.

The most realistic way of combating piracy is cooperation between militarily strong countries in protecting navigation in problem areas. A united squadron of ships set up on the basis of a broad coalition (NATO countries, Russia, and the Gulf states) could effectively counter piracy off Somalia, or in any other trouble spot.

Legal measures are also important. The UN Security Council's mandate for the invasion of Somalia's territorial waters, use of arms against the pirates, and allocation of the required forces and equipment (reconnaissance aviation, deck helicopters, radars, and Marines and Special Forces trained in boarding and releasing hostages) will eventually make piracy too dangerous an occupation.

It would be enough to set up a squadron of five to six warships and one light helicopter carrier as a flagship. Warships from different navies could rotate patrol duty with shifts lasting for several months. In the most dangerous areas, merchant vessels could be escorted by ships, helicopters, or armed motor-boats.

Importantly, patrols will be effective only if struggle against piracy overrides the inviolability of territorial waters. Otherwise, the pirates will always be able to escape punishment.

It goes without saying that piracy will not be eliminated even if an operation off Somalia's coast is successful. The oceans are huge and "gentlemen of fortune" will always find a place for their activities.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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