01 AUG 2005
By P. Mukundan, Director, ICC International Maritime Bureau
For the purposes of this article, the term “piracy” includes “piracy” as defined under article 101 of UNCLOS1 and “armed robbery” as defined by the MSC/Circ. 984 of the IMO. The term “pirates” includes those perpetrating such attacks.
Despite the drop in overall numbers, which is welcome, the attacks in the Malacca Straits, one of the world’s major seaways, increased from 28 incidents in 2003 to 37 incidents in 2004. Many of these attacks were violent, involving the use of automatic weapons and in some cases rocket propelled grenades and resulted in the abduction of crew for ransom.
Indonesia accounted for about a quarter of the world’s attacks in 2004, continuing a trend which began in 1998.
Lagos (Nigeria) earned the dubious distinction of being the port with the highest number of attacks reported followed by Tanjong Priok (Indonesia), Balikpapan (Indonesia) and Chittagong (Bangladesh).
The levels of violence remain high. Thirty crew were killed and 30 reported missing (believed to have died) in 2004. One hundred and forty-eight were taken hostage, 86 crew were kidnapped and held to ransom. Fifty-nine crew were injured in attacks.
Types of attacks
Petty theft of this kind is not new. It used to be the case that such pirates were easily frightened off by the crew. What differentiates the attacks of today is that the pirates are better armed, expect greater returns and are more determined. If they are able to enter the ship’s accommodation, crew’s valuables or bridge equipment not locked away might be stolen. Many of the pirates head for the safe in the master’s cabin and are quite prepared to injure or kill the master and crew if they do not get what they want.
On 2nd December 2004, a Nigerian LPG tanker was attacked whilst at anchor in Lagos Roads by 12 robbers armed with guns, knives and axes. The armed robbers rushed to the bridge and forced the master with a gun at his temple and a knife at his throat to hand over money. Not satisfied with what they got from the master, they were heard discussing murdering one of the crew members to force the others to co-operate. Because a few of the robbers disagreed they shelved this idea and left the vessel after raiding the crew’s cabins stealing cash and valuables. The master and the crew were injured in the attack.
At the other end of the spectrum is the hijacking and taking control of a vessel. Previously these attacks were aimed at stealing the vessel and its cargo. Today, except for the hijacking of tugs and barges where the attacks are aimed at stealing cargo on board the barge, these attacks are aimed primarily at abducting crew members and holding them to ransom. Such attacks take place in South East Asia and Somalia.
In between these two extremes are the vast majority of attacks involving varying degrees of violence and audacity.
In South East Asia the attack typically involves two or more pirate craft (usually fishing vessels) converging upon the target vessel from different directions. As they approach the vessel they fire automatic weapons at the bridge windows and accommodation block. In some cases rocket propelled grenades are fired. This can frighten the bridge complement of the vessel to reduce speed or stop. The pirate craft then draw up alongside and the armed pirates will board the vessel. At this stage they are extremely aggressive and will injure or kill if opposed. They proceed to the bridge and take over the vessel. A few of the pirates will rush to the engine room control centre and take control. The crew are rounded up, may be beaten and their personal valuables may be stolen. The pirates then separate the crew they wish to abduct – usually the master and other officers or engineers and force them into the pirate craft. The remaining crew on board will be told to contact the owners to advise that the hostages have been taken. The pirate craft sails away and over the next few days negotiations continue for the return of the abducted crew. In a number of cases the hostages are transferred from fishing vessel to fishing vessel until the negotiations are over, making it difficult to locate them and mount a rescue. Usually the crew are set free once payment is made.
On 5th January 2004 a small Indonesian product tanker was attacked by pirates in the Malacca Straits. They took 13 crew members hostage and released the master to convey the ransom demands to the owners. The negotiations continued without result for a month. The pirates then killed four crew members and released the others who jumped overboard and were rescued. This is the only recent case reported to the PRC where abducted crew members have been killed.
The hijacking of ships for the theft of the cargo has reduced in the past two years. This is probably because in many cases the pirates were caught and the vessel and cargo recovered before the gang could dispose of it. It was no longer financially viable.
On 22nd April 2005 an unusual attack was reported to the PRC. A vessel laden with block tin from Muntok, Indonesia to Singapore was boarded off Lingga Islands by more than 10 pirates armed with guns and knives. According to the report by the master they took over the vessel and imprisoned the crew on board. The vessel proceeded under control of the pirates to Pasir Gudang. The master was released before entering Pasir Gudang and under threat of his crew being killed was ordered to go through all the normal entry formalities with the port authorities. The cargo was discharged into a warehouse in Pasir Gudang. After the vessel sailed, the pirates got off the vessel near Batam Island, Indonesia. The cargo has now been recovered from the warehouse by the Royal Malaysian Police and investigations are underway. However, the tactics used by the pirates in cases like this can bypass many of the security controls in ports including some of the measures under the ISPS Code. It may also signal a resurgence of the hijacking of vessels for theft of cargo.
Somalia is another high risk area for piracy. The objective of the attacks here is to hijack the vessel and hold the whole crew and the vessel to ransom. The IMB recommends that vessels should consider sailing as far away from the coast as practicable and not to slow down for engine repairs whilst in this area. Recently a vessel was seized by pirates as far away as 190 miles off the coast. Generally, though, the attacks tend to take place closer to the coast. In one attack in April 2005, a tanker was lured to come close to the coast by a false distress signal. As the target vessel approached the vessel in “distress”, boats emerged from the lee of the vessel and forced the target vessel to stop under threat of firing a rocket propelled grenade on to the deck of the vessel. The vessel was boarded, seized and crew held to ransom. The crew and the vessel were released after the negotiations were successfully concluded.
Response – Problems and solutions
Prosecuting pirates poses its own difficulties. The witnesses to the crime, the crew members, are sometimes hesitant to give evidence in court. They are concerned about reprisals against them or their families by the gangs involved. The courts handling these cases need to understand the special circumstances involved. This does not mean that hijackers of ships have not been convicted. There have been successful convictions and appropriate punishments handed down in China, India, Korea, Philippines and elsewhere. Where there is a will by governments to tackle piracy, there will be convictions. Where the will is absent, there are always excuses which can be put forward to justify inaction.
The response to opportunistic thefts is purely a matter for law enforcement of the coastal state. These attacks are usually carried out by pirates from the coastal state who attack vessels in territorial waters, after which they return to their villages in the coastal state. In some waterways like the Malacca Straits, Indonesian pirates have crossed over into Malaysian waters and attacked vessels. When they are detected by Royal Malaysian Police vessels they quickly head back into Indonesia, secure in the knowledge that the Malaysians will not be able to pursue them over the border. On one occasion reported to the IMB, the Indonesian Navy came upon pirates in Indonesian waters attacking a vessel. Instead of heading for the coast, they headed across the Strait into Malaysian waters to escape the Indonesian Navy. There is no right of hot pursuit across international boundaries in South East Asia – and the pirates know it only too well!
The IMB would like to see the littoral states exploring models by which more effective law enforcement actions can be conducted in practice, on the water. One possibility may be the posting of a liaison officer on the neighbour’s law enforcement vessel. During an active chase the liaison officer would seek permission from his line of command for the chase to carry on into the neighbouring state until their law enforcement vessel arrived on scene. Such a mechanism is not just to fight piracy, but is also invaluable in dealing with other maritime crimes such as mass illegal immigration and smuggling, which takes place regularly across the Malacca Straits.
For the more serious kind of piracy attacks the hijacked vessel will often be taken across national boundaries under a false name and registry. A common problem here used to be that the law enforcement agency in the coastal state where the vessel is found would not normally have the right to investigate the hijacking which took place in the waters of another country. The IMO Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation, 1988 (SUA Convention) overcomes some of the problems of cross-territorial investigation and prosecution. Post-9/11 and the ISPS discussions hosted at the IMO, there are now 115 countries that have ratified the SUA Convention.
The IMB Piracy Reporting Centre (PRC)
In addition, the IMB is involved in the resolution of almost every major hijacking and serious piracy incident. It has close links with law enforcement agencies and works effectively with them.
The PRC transmits a daily message to shipping in all high risk areas advising them of the location and type of recent attacks. This is sometimes invaluable information for masters as they transit these areas.
The services of the PRC are free of cost to all ships in respect of alerts, information and response. It is funded by donations from the industry and the shortfall every year is met by the IMB.
Summary and conclusions
Vessels are taken over by pirates in South East Asia and Somalia in order to abduct the crew and hold them to ransom. This is a particularly reprehensible crime against defenceless seafarers. In some recent attacks, pirates have used false distress signals to lure the target vessel to move close to the pirate craft.
Only law enforcement agencies can deal effectively with piracy. In the areas where they are properly resourced and motivated, piracy has been brought under control. There are difficulties over the collection and presentation of evidence to criminal courts.
In most of the high-risk areas there is no right of hot pursuit by law enforcement vessels of a neighbouring country. It may be difficult to challenge the need to maintain sovereignty, but there is no doubt that pirates exploit this weakness. The SUA Convention may be an effective way to overcome some of the jurisdictional problems in dealing with hijacked vessels found in a country different to that where the crime was committed. In the final analyses, countries must have the will to investigate and prosecute pirates.
Unfortunately, in many countries piracy is still seen as a crime against foreign seafarers, on board a foreign ship carrying a foreign cargo, which just happens to be passing through national waters and does not feature high in the priorities of law enforcement.
The IMB’s PRC plays a key role in the fight against piracy. From sending daily status reports to liaising with law enforcement agencies, providing information and advice, investigating and assisting in the recovery of hijacked vessels, it remains a focal centre for anti-piracy action.