Saturday, November 25, 2017

Roots of piracy are on land as well as the sea, says Sri Lankan admiral

  • PK Balachandran, Sri Lanka Correspondent,
    Published: 2017-03-20 23:33:44 BdST

Rescuers assist injured men from the scene of an explosion near Wehliye Hotel on Maka al Mukaram street in Somalia's capital Mogadishu, March 13, 2017. Reuters

A former Sri Lankan navy chief who is now an academic, Admiral Dr Jayanath Colombage, has said that the roots of piracy are on land as well as the sea.

Speaking to this correspondent following the seizure of an oil tanker by Somali pirates in the Horn of Africa on March 13 after a gap of five years, Adm Colombage said: “The sea is where piracy takes place, but it stems from conditions on land.”

Elaborating the thesis, he said: “Piracy is big business with international links as well as local political, official and business connections. Intelligence gathering is done internationally through agents, and the money collected is shared as per systems spread across borders.”

“The boats, weapons and the men are hired and trained professionally. The actual pirates get only the crumbs. It is the big fish on land who get the lion’s share. Therefore, any attempt to curb piracy has to be done not only at sea but on land too.”

Somali pirates had seized the bunkering tanker Aris 13 while it was sailing from Djibouti to Mogadishu. Flying the Comoros flag, 1188-tonne vessel was owned by a company based in Fujairah in the UAE, but the eight-man crew was entirely Sri Lankan. The incident naturally caused much distress in Sri Lanka.

Admiral Dr Jayanath Colombage

Admiral Dr Jayanath Colombage

But thanks to the US Ambassador in Colombo, Atul Keshap, and the 41-nation Combined Maritime Force led by an American Admiral based in the UAE, the crew and the vessel were released on Thursday without physical harm or ransom.

Though resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, the incident brought home the possibility of piracy raising its ugly head again in the Horn of Africa.

“Like all crimes, piracy thrives under political confusion, absence of a firm and normative administrative system, lawlessness, corruption and violence. In the present case, there is political confusion, unrest, violence and lawlessness in Somalia and the Puntland the autonomous region which is part of Somalia,” Adm Colombage pointed out.

After the February presidential elections which Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed won, the Al Shabaab group has been threatening to eliminate those cooperating with the Abdullahi regime.

Al Shabaab had assassinated the National Intelligence Agency chief and had skirmishes with the Somali National Army also. In the Puntland autonomous region, a pro-ISIS Islamic group has been beheading opponents. Meanwhile, the UN has been warning of an impending famine.

Undated Reuters File Photo shows Somali pirate Abdi Ali stands near a Taiwanese fishing vessel that was abandoned after pirates released the crew.

Undated Reuters File Photo shows Somali pirate Abdi Ali stands near a Taiwanese fishing vessel that was abandoned after pirates released the crew.

“Added to this is devastation caused by international fishing off the coast of Somalia. It has denied Somali fishermen their livelihood and driven them into the arms of pirate recruiters,” Adm Colombage said.

As for the conditions in the sea which foster piracy, there has been an erosion of the maritime security system since piracy was put down in 2012.  Multilateral naval cooperation and provision of naval escorts to ships had reduced the demand for Sea Marshals supplied by private companies.

These companies were charging a lot - US$ 200 to 300 dollars per man, per day. With each voyage having to have at least four Marshals, if not more, the security bill per voyage was US$ 20,000 to US$ 25,000.   This was a lot, and shipping companies have been stinting on onboard security.

“Shipping companies make a calculation to see the statistical probability of a vessel being hijacked and fix the security system on board accordingly. Ultimately everything boils down to money,” Adm.

Colombage remarked.

Speaking particularly about the Aris 13 incident, the Sri Lankan naval spokesman, Lt Commander CRP Walakuluge, said that the vessel did not have a single Sea Marshal on board. It had no naval escort either.

Aris 13

Aris 13

It was a slow vessel with an average speed of 5 knots. And to save fuel, it sailed hugging the coast instead of going into the deep sea. All ideal conditions for pirates on the prowl.

As for other flaws in the security system, the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against Safety of Maritime Navigation covers terrorism but not piracy.

There are also no rules for the prosecution and jailing of captured pirates, which results in captured pirates being let off. Cases cannot be taken to the International Criminal Court because its jurisdiction is not universally applicable.

These legal loopholes will have to be plugged.  Costs will have to be brought down and conditions in Somalia and Puntland will have to be improved of piracy is to be checked.