As from I December 2015 the piracy High Risk Area (HRA) in the Indian Ocean, which currently stretches from Somalia across to the western coastline of India, is to be reduced in size. The limits are being redrawn by the International Shipping Associations in response to the continuing lessening of the piracy threat in the region. The reduction is very positive and will be welcomed and, as the military consider the future mandate for EUNAVFOR Operation Atalanta in the region, it is timely to consider the improving prospects for shipping in the Indian Ocean, to note piracy trends on other regions, where in South East Asia, in particular, the trend is worsening, and to highlight where the counter-piracy priorities for the international community and shipping industry now lie.
The HRA is being reduced following a thorough regional threat assessment or re-assessment by both industry and the military. All parties have agreed that the threat to international shipping from Somali based pirates has reduced to almost nil but the threat has not been eliminated. A resumption of hijacking in the Indian Ocean must be avoided at all costs. Given the very slow progress of capacity building initiatives on land and improvements in governance in Somalia pirates still retain the capability to resume attacks. And they would likely do so if weak law enforcement permitted a resumption, or in event of repeated provocation. Provocative actions might be, for example, by unprotected ships passing close inshore or by foreign fishing vessels working in Somali waters. The possibility of resurgence in piracy is therefore considered to be real and will not diminish for a considerable period yet.
The shipping industry is acutely aware that modern piracy has demonstrated the ability to both spread and evolve and tackling a piracy threat requires a promptly delivered mix of responses. Best Management Practices Version 4 (BMP4) is still a ship’s first defence against piracy and they have, as the version number indicates, been continuously reviewed. They now contain a complete compendium of counter-piracy self-protection measures. Many lessons have been learnt in the Indian Ocean since 2008 and for the seafarers and shipowner alike the most important lesson has been in the effectiveness of BMPs. The challenge in the next year will be to ensure that BMPs continue to be deployed by all ships transiting the reduced HRA. At the same time regional variants of BMPs are in use in the Gulf of Guinea and some companies are considering their use in South East Asia. BMPs are undoubtedly a sound generic document for shipboard use, developed in response to the extreme threat of ship hijacking. The guidance covers: Company and Shipboard planning, ship protection measures, types of attack and actions to be taken, and contact and reporting requirements with military and flag state authorities. The effectiveness of BMPs has been proven in response to attacks by Somali pirates. Discussions are now taking place about how the guidance might be modified to provide standard piracy advice in other piracy risk areas or perhaps expanded to including additional advice relating to other maritime threats.
Secondly industry has learnt to work very closely with the military and to optimise the protection which is offered by our military colleagues serving in many navies. The degree to which the navies of European nations have worked together within EU Operation Atalanta created a unique EU maritime force has been impressive but the most surprising co-operation has come from an unexpected direction, from a host of independent countries, including Russia, China, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand which deployed their naval vessels on complementary operations in the region. For the ship operator this has provided a plethora of naval cover at times but has also created a potential difficulty in knowing who to report to and what protection might be provided during transit and in the event of a pirate attack. So although much has been learnt there is further work required to develop standard reporting formats and contingency plans with naval forces for use in response to incidents.
It is appropriate to note the outcome of discussions which took place at the highly successful International Meeting on Global Piracy hosted by the International Maritime Bureau and held in Kuala Lumpur on 14 and 15 September 2015. The meeting was supported by the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency, Interpol, the Royal Malaysia Police, and local and international experts. They reviewed the need for improved intelligence sharing, a review of ship protection measures, evidence gathering and law enforcement, and finally considered an initiative to develop a sustainable global information sharing framework. The purpose of the framework is to connect ships to a counter-piracy information and response capability.
The last of these, the information sharing framework is the most urgently required. At present there is a profusion of reporting centres in different regions each utilising different reporting formats and offering differing levels of support. This is confusing for ship’s masters and crew and could contribute to misunderstandings and incorrect responses being taken in response to a piracy incident both by the vessel and by shore authorities. The European Commission has initiated a study aimed at evaluating the feasibility of a global piracy reporting network and working with IMB which will report in mid-2016.
The debate around the use of Armed Guards continues to divide the industry, but not to the degree it did in 2011. The regime for the carriage of guards is now well established at national level by about 30 important flag states and at an international level by the international standard known as ISO 28007. Practical experience has, on one hand, led many pragmatic owners to recognise the effectiveness of professional armed teams. Others remain staunchly committed to the principle that civilian ships should not be armed or require arms but should be protected by the international law and the international community. What is certain at this point is that the present response; that of allowing their use in the Indian Ocean will continue for some period yet. At the same time it is less clear which countries or jurisdictions in other regional piracy hotspots will agree to the use of armed guards, or the terms under which they currently do so. In particular in the Gulf of Guinea where several littoral states lack the capacity to protect their own waters locally employed armed guards are seen as a legitimate and low cost solution to protect visiting ships from the persistent pirate attacks. This contrasts with the response of littoral states in South East Asia, the majority of who oppose the use of private armed guards on ships. Viewed globally the result is a fragmented and inconsistent approach to the employment of private security. For the moment ships carrying such teams must ensure they are fully compliant with all flag, coastal and port state requirements. ISO 28007 provides a proven mechanism against which to check compliance in different local jurisdictions.
So, as we pause to reflect and learn lessons from the Somali experience it appears we can carry forward two work streams. Firstly at an international level we need to continue to develop government and industry mechanisms which will ensure a co-ordinated international response to persistent or emerging piracy threats on a global basis. Second we need a means of delivering sustained counter-piracy measures targeted at the sources of pirate activity on a regional basis. In more detail, at an international level this means there is a need for a body to provide global oversight of piracy with the capability to co-ordinate and deliver political and military responses. This might be a successor body to the UNCGPCS or that group in a new guise. The oversight of pirate activity must be informed by a shared global monitoring and reporting system and be alert to new piracy events, to new types of piracy and to emerging trends. In the meantime for industry there is a need to continue to deploy self-protection measures to better safeguard seafarers and continually to improve security procedures in use and to integrate them with normal shipboard procedures.
So while the reduction of the HRA in the Indian Ocean can be welcomed as a sign of a return towards normality stubborn problems which afflict other regions must continue to be addressed by both government and industry, and the future for Somalia itself remains uncertain.