Thursday, May 14, 2009

Piracy - Discussions of the Problem and Solutions at the American Superyachts Forum

During the American Superyacht Forum in Seattle there were very interesting discussions, on a somewhat more technical basis, about the piracy issues facing the superyacht (and cruise) industries.  The conclusion I came away with was that the problem has, in large part, been caused by various international (external) matters, has been exacerbated by those same factors, the logical solutions have been blocked by the same factors...and the bottom line is very simple.

What the heck do I mean by that?

The issue of piracy is not limited to the Gulf of Aden off of Somalia.  There have been issues with piracy in the Caribbean (actually a present growing concern for yachts), Indonesia, the Philippines, and the Strait of Malacca off of Singapore among others.  In most cases the problem arises out of economic strife.  One speaker (who is French) gave a wonderfully French analysis of how the problem in Somalia is the result of the economic hardships visited upon the people of Somalia by the wealth of the industrialized countries.  I will not get into all of the logic, but remember this person.  (He is actually quite a funny and charming individual!)

Now, many flag states (countries who have vessels documented in their countries for tax and other reasons)...such as you see noted on the sterns of many cruise ships with their flags wafting in the breeze...forbid arms being kept on their ships.  These same countries also require (and usually for good reason) that ships maintain an AIS system (Automatic Identification System) so that they can be identified not only for government control of their ports, but so that other ships can see who is around them and what speed/direction they are traveling relative to themselves.  (You can see an example here, just click on any box and then hover over any identified ship.)

Adding to that some countries do not permit ships to bring weapons into their waters, so even if the flag state will permit the weapons, there are issues getting them to the ships, having them aboard while in an objecting countries waters, and then getting them off the ship.

What this does is - in most instances - is give the pirates two key advantages:  They have a good idea which ships are not carrying weapons and they know exactly which ships are where, where they are coming from and probably going to, and what kind of ships they are.  (Remember, pirates being pirates, they are carrying weapons and the ships they have commandeered will not have their AIS turned on even if it is against the law.)  [NOTE:  Please remember that while most pirates are becoming quite sophisticated there are still some worthy of a Darwin Award...such as the ones that recently tried to board a French Navy Frigate!]

So what can be done? 

Remember that French man who blamed it all on the society of the rich?  Well, he actually owns a security company that places armed sharpshooters on these private ships.  His staff, made up of naval specialists - for land-based "special forces" individuals are not trained in sea conflicts, are brought in and taken off the ships with their own weapons.  This is not inexpensive.  (And lets you know that capitalism works even for those with a more socialist philosophy!)

Others are voluntarily breaking the law by turning off their AIS for the duration of the transit in the troubled waters so they are somewhat "invisible".  (Seriously what is the fine for that?!)  And yet others are training their crews and secreting weapons onboard which will be dumped into the Mediterranean Sea or Gulf of Oman so the flag state, the port state or the countries whose waters are being transited really have no idea they are there. 

But some of the countries are starting to change their regulations and will, for example, allow ships carrying their own flag, but not foreign flags, to have weapons onboard.  So what do they do?  For a "small fee" they are allowing ships to have two flags for just the limited period while it is in their waters, thereby "justifying" the presence of weapons while not changing the law which is suppose to protect the country from having illegal weapons gaining entry through its ports.

An attorney I have know for almost thirty years was recently quoted as saying that captains and crew should be trained, armed and given the "flexibility to commence firing as soon as he or she perceives a threat by an unidentified vessel, which approaches and refuses to turn back."  While I don't know if he would recommend his clients also turn off their AIS, he claims it has worked "with 100 percent success to date...[as] all unidentified craft have wisely turned back when confronted by hostile fire."

Clearly those incidents are not going to be reported because both of the combatants are violating the law.  Personally, I don't know if I would want to go on record making that statement knowing it is like expressly condoning the violation of international law.   And therein lies part of the problem.  There needs to be a way to prevent piracy from becoming an excuse for the Wild West on the High Seas. 

But at least the French and Americans are starting to agree on things!