Piracy in Spotlight on Anniversary of Maersk Alabama Attack

May 2010

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On April 8, 2009, the American public was reintroduced to the problem of piracy on the high seas as the news media was fixated with the pirate attack on the Maersk Alabama and the capture of its captain, Richard Phillips. The episode had a successful ending as the U.S. Navy was credited with shooting the pirates who held the captain captive, and all the mariners on board –including SIU members – were hailed as heroes for resisting the pirates.

The event refocused public attention to a problem seafarers who travel through the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea have had to endure for decades – the possibility of being hijacked and harmed by marauding Somali pirates.

A year later, NBC’s “Dateline” news program interviewed Captain Phillips to get his take on how he and his crew fought against the attack. During the program last month, Phillips praised the crew for its professionalism under fire. He also discussed some of the effective training he and the crew had practiced. The U.S. Navy has encouraged sharing of many of these best practices, such as crews hiding on board and the use of fire hoses and high-pressure water to discourage pirates from boarding ships.

But, one year after the attack and despite ramped-up efforts to fight it, progress is mixed. According to an April 2010 U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics report titled “International Piracy and Armed Robbery at Sea,” the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea region have experienced an increase in pirate attacks of 123 percent compared to the previous year. With the number of pirate attacks increasing, pirates have become more brazen by attacking ships farther from their home base of Somalia. Pirates have even unsuccessfully attacked military ships such as a U.S. Navy frigate, and pirates have used hijacked ships as “mother ships” to stage more attacks. Additionally, pirates hold in ransom numerous ships and their crews, waiting until shipping companies pay their ransom demands. Somali pirates have also seized ships carrying humanitarian cargoes intended to help the impoverished in their own nation.

Despite efforts by European Union navies and the U.S. Navy to patrol the thousands of square miles of shipping channels in this part of the world, pirates continue to ply their financially lucrative trade. The international community, including the U.N., the International Maritime Organization and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (to which the SIU is affiliated) finds the biggest problem in the region is the impoverishment and instability in Somalia.

In a motion sponsored by the SIU and supported unanimously by delegates attending the ITF Seafarers’ Section meetings in Berlin, seafaring organizations recognized the hub of the piracy problem stems from the failing government and economy of Somalia. The resolution said that the ITF and its affiliates sympathize with the plight of innocent Somalis; it also acknowledged that the maritime industry alone, including shippers, shipowners and seafaring unions, cannot solve the problems faced by the Somalia people. The motion clearly states that more must be done to protect mariners carrying out their duties serving on merchant ships. It also notes the continuing attacks are having adverse effects on the retention and recruitment of seafarers.

To this end, the motion calls on governments to take further steps to protect mariners and their vessels operating in these dangerous waters and provide direct support to hasten the release of the numerous ships and crews currently held. The motion’s bottom line is that if governments fail to act, there’s a strong possibility that seafarers, individually or collectively, could refuse to enter dangerous waters.

During those same sessions in Berlin, union representatives voted to launch a new campaign to persuade all governments to commit the resources necessary to end the increasing problem of Somalia-based piracy. Delegates authorized the ITF to build a campaign that is hoped to deliver half a million signatures to governments by World Maritime Day, September 23rd. The campaign will call on them to close the circle on protection of ships, and for those states now ducking their responsibilities to stand up and follow the example of those which are actively involved in combating the threat.

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