Emblematic of the worlds sense of frustration and helplessness in the face of snowballing Somalian piracy was British PM David Camerons strong condemnation of this phenomenon. Speaking on the margins of the recent Commonwealth summit,he described it as a complete insult to the world and urged the international community to come together with much more vigour in support of counter-piracy endeavours. The leader of this small island nation with a rapidly dwindling navy then offered to lead the effort to combat this menace.
Dominated by the Horn of Africa,the Gulf of Aden forms a funnel for 24,000 merchant ships annually transiting the Suez Canal carrying energy and raw material to Europe and finished goods to Africa and the Middle East. The abjectly poor Somalian Republic,which occupies most of the Horn,has been in a state of turmoil for nearly two decades,and is only notionally governed by a transitional federal government. Al-Shabaab,an affiliate of al-Qaeda,has waged a four-year campaign to remove this government,and controls most of southern and central Somalia.
An interlocked world economy,heavily dependent on seaborne trade and energy supplies,is extremely sensitive to any perturbations at sea. The threat of piracy has already caused insurance rates to rise steeply,and as shipping companies reluctantly implement anti-piracy measures,including the deployment of armed guards,and re-routing of ships to avoid piracy-infested waters,operating expenses are skyrocketing. Unbeknownst to the man on the street,all these costs are being passed on to him.
From just 10-15 incidents in 2004,the waters of the Gulf of Aden have seen acts of piracy and hijacking spiraling rapidly and in each of the last two years there have been nearly 400 attacks,a quarter to one-third being successful. With experience,the pirates have gained immeasurably in audacity as well as the scale of their depredations. They have graduated from small skiffs and trawlers to using medium-sized captured merchantmen as mother ships,which allows them the freedom to extend their range up to 1000-1500 miles from Somalia right up to Indian territorial waters. The amount of ransom has risen from a few hundred thousand to a few million US dollars per ship and crew.
Legally speaking,the safety of a merchant ship is the responsibility of the country under whose flag the ship is registered or the flag state. However,60 to 70 per cent of the worlds shipping is registered under flags of convenience offered,as a cost-cutting and tax-dodging device,by small nations like Liberia,Panama,Bahamas or the Marshall Islands. While it is unrealistic to expect such flag states to initiate any action in a piracy/hostage situation,we must bear in mind that a very large number of officers and seamen who serve on the worlds merchant fleets happen to be Indian nationals. As we have already seen,a hostage situation involving Indian sailors can bring enormous public pressure to bear on the government.
External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna weighed in on this issue at the recently held Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) conference by emphasising the need for collective action by members to combat the menace of piracy in international waters. To lend substance to the ministers words,the Indian navy notched up yet another success,as INS Sukanya successfully fought off successive pirate attacks on ships that she was escorting.
The deployment of warships by 25 nations has failed to deter piracy because these forces are inadequate and lack coordination. The depredations of Somali pirates,now at Indias doorstep,pose a serious threat to international shipping and the world economy. Should they strike a mutually beneficial nexus with a terrorist outfit like the Al-Shabaab,the consequences could be far more serious,especially for small island nations. Under these circumstances,neither brave exhortations by ministers,nor sporadic successes by navies are a substitute for an action-plan based on a cohesive and long-term multi-national strategy to eliminate piracy from Somalian waters.
Given Indias central location in the Indian Ocean and the fact that the Indian navy and coast guard represent a maritime capability unmatched in this part of the world,this situation presents a rare opportunity for India to demonstrate that it can act resolutely,not only in its own interests,but also for the common weal. To this end,New Delhi must immediately convene a meeting of Indian Ocean and other maritime nations to discuss a substantive multi-national initiative to combat piracy simultaneously on three fronts: at sea,in the Somalian homeland and in specially constituted courts. If it calls for a white-hulled naval law-enforcement force sailing under the UN blue ensign; so be it.
A clear demonstration of leadership such as this,at sea,will garner far more support for Indias UNSC bid than any amount of pleading and cajoling in foreign capitals.
The writer is a retired chief of naval staff