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An Open Letter to Members and Branches from Institute President, on Piracy

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An open letter to each Branch and Member of The Nautical Institute
Allaboutshipping brings you this down to earth letter and leaves it to the political professionals to seek solution for the long standing and continuing saga of Piracy, which is on the increase.

We have watched for a number of years now as the piracy problem on the Horn of Africa, in the Gulf of Aden and in the Indian Ocean continues unabated. We have waited for the various initiatives taken at international and regional level to yield fruit and show some signs of coming to grips with this problem. As of 23rd September 2011, 375 people are being held hostage on the coast of Somalia of which 284 are merchant seafarers and 91 are fishermen and crews of sailing vessels. 683 people have been released in 2011, presumably on payment of ransom. As the Monsoon subsides we can expect a new wave of pirate attacks.

The deployment of the various navies under different command structures is having some success at containing or displacing the activities of the pirates but the navies are restricted by their huge area of operations versus the number of warships available and by the rules of engagement under which they must operate. The temptation to blame our naval colleagues must be resisted as military forces may only operate under the rules of engagement handed down to them by their governments. At least those governments are making a contribution to the naval effort.

The IMO continues to try and highlight the issue and to raise it with the UN. It has made “Piracy; Orchestrating the Response” the theme for its activities of this year. Various countermeasures have been proposed to try to prevent the pirates gaining access to vessels. However, when thwarted, the pirates will look for a softer target and ultimately seek a tactic to overcome those measures.  The emergence of private security parties and commercial escort ships while having a deterrent effect is viewed with some concern for legal reasons, including the status of the master of a vessel with embarked armed civilian personnel.

As President of The Nautical Institute I have raised this issue (and the issue of criminalisation) whenever I have addressed an audience, whenever I have given an interview and whenever I have spoken with a person of influence. On each occasion my message has been the same. The issues of piracy and criminalisation are not natural causes for the Institute, being as we are primarily devoted to the advancement of nautical science and the professional development of our members. We cannot, however, ignore piracy and criminalisation as they are doing so much damage to our profession and the shipping industry. We know that the problem of piracy is the symptom of a political problem on land. Treating the symptom while ignoring the disease may bring some relief but it will not cure the disease. The resolution of the problem of piracy rests with the governments of the international community perhaps working through the United Nations dealing with the political problem in Somalia. I remain convinced that it will not be resolved at sea.

I am now of the opinion that The Nautical Institute, with our branches scattered across the globe, should become more proactive in the fight against piracy. I have been able to obtain, through the good offices of the EU Anti-piracy Operation EUNAVFOR, the number of seafarers whose nationality is known, who were held for ransom on the Horn of Africa on the 23rd of September 2011. These figures do not tally with the total number of merchant seafarers held as it is not possible to verify the nationality of all.

See table below:

Nationality  Number
Filipino         33
Indian           30
Chinese          18
Syrian           18
Algerian         17
Georgian         15
Indonesian       14
Vietnamese       12
Italian          11
Myanmar          11
Yemini            9
Ukrainian         8
Thai              5
Ghanaian          4
Korean            4
Romanian          3
Turkish           3
Danish            2
Pakistani         2
S. African        2
Sudanese          2
Jordanian         1
Russian           1
Sri Lankan        1
Taiwanese         1

We have branches in many of the countries mentioned in the table. We have members in many of the others. It is now time for our branches and members to alert our public representatives (and the media if appropriate) that their citizens have been kidnapped while doing their jobs and are being held against their will in a foreign country. The period of their captivity will range from weeks to almost a year. They are being held in very difficult conditions and there is no way of confirming their wellbeing but we suspect that many are being ill treated. Some have been put to death. Those that remain will not be released until their captors have been paid large ransoms.

While acknowledging the initiatives of the IMO and the work being done by the international navies, the problem of piracy is not waning. The total ransom paid in 2011 will be double that paid in 2010. This impacts on the shipping industry and the world economy. It appears, however, that the international community is content to continue to pay although the sums involved in financing pirate operations and the assets of the recipients of ransoms might be open to financial investigation by the international police or intelligence communities.

My main concern however is the cost to our seafaring colleagues and their families. The continuation of this level of human suffering has now become a shame on us all because of the apparent lack of a cohesive response to solve, rather than just contain, the problem. Continuing to treat the symptom will no longer suffice.

I call on all our branch committees and our individual members to resolve to take some action to alert their governments to the plight of their citizens. It is a government’s responsibility to protect its citizens and the fact that the people being held to ransom are seafarers does not absolve governments of that responsibility. We must do all that we can to ensure that the plight of our seafaring colleagues and our fellow countrymen and women is not forgotten.

I ask each branch to resolve to do one or all of the following:

  • Forward this letter to your Minister of Transport and local political representative requesting more action at the UN to tackle the political problems of Somalia and or increased naval intervention;
  • Hold a conference or seminar on the subject to raise awareness of the issues and develop cooperation and an exchange of ideas with your navy;
  • Raise the awareness of the need for support of seafarers in piracy waters before, during and after capture and support for their families during the incarceration period.

I remain available to assist in any way possible to keep this issue at the forefront of public debate.

J.A Robinson
Captain J.A. Robinson DSM FNI Irish Navy (Retd)
President, The Nautical Institute, dated 28 September 2011

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