Progress in Piracy Fight, but Much Work Remains

 

April 2012

 

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High-ranking officials from the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and the influential global tanker association Intertanko told the Maritime Trades Department, AFL-CIO executive board that progress is happening in the battle against piracy, but it’s still a significant problem.

 

ITF Seafarers’ Section Secretary Jon Whitlow talked to the board on March 9, while Intertanko Managing Director Joseph Angelo (a former U.S. Coast Guard official) addressed the MTD a day earlier. Both men asserted that mariner wellbeing should be the first consideration in the piracy fight.

 

Whitlow pointed out that since 2008, more than 800 vessels have been attacked by pirates; last year alone, some 113 vessels were fired upon.

 

During that same period, and sometimes inexplicably omitted from mainstream reporting, Whitlow noted, “More than 60 seafarers have died – killed by pirates in crossfire or deliberately, by suicide in despair, killed in naval action to counter piracy, or died through illness, usually [because of] poor water, poor nutrition.”

 

He said that the “failure to confront piracy off of Somalia has led to it becoming a growing problem elsewhere, (including) off West Africa and the Gulf of Guinea.”

 

Whitlow declared the challenges in combatting piracy include lack of effort by some of the major flag states; attempts to outlaw ransom payments; an overall reduction of naval assets; and not enough prosecution of pirates, sometimes labeled “catch and release.”

 

However, he also stated that real progress has been made, as reflected by reliable figures which demonstrate far fewer successful attempted attacks. Positive developments include growing political will, the use of armed security guards, improved shipboard practices, “more robust naval action,” and follow-up care for mariners after they return home from a piracy incident.

 

A less-obvious but much-needed step, Whitlow continued, is stopping the pirates before they ever leave shore. The ITF “is on record with 60 governments calling for the need to attack the pirate logistic bases on land.”

 

Finally, he talked about the Save Our Seafarers (SOS) campaign, launched one year ago by organizations representing every component of the maritime industry, including the ITF and Intertanko. In order to achieve the campaign’s goals, the industry first had to get the attention of the people whom Whitlow described as “the decision-makers.”

 

With that in mind, he stated, “The biggest achievement in our eyes is that we’ve secured mainstream press coverage. Previously we’d been confined to the maritime press…. We have managed to secure widespread and regular coverage in Reuters, five articles in Time magazine, a special edition of The Economist, coverage by the BBC, CNN, Daily Telegraph, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal to name but a few. So we’ve moved into the main press.”

 

However, he concluded, “We’ve got a long way to go, and we need to put an end to the scourge of piracy once and for all.”

 

Much of Angelo’s presentation also focused on piracy, but he first pointed out that Intertanko is a non-profit association of independent owners and operators of oil and chemical tankers (oil companies are not members). Collectively, the 230 or so members account for about 80 percent of the world’s tanker fleet.

 

He described why his organization is deeply concerned about its market – worries that perhaps were best illustrated by the grim fact that current tanker market rates are consistently below shipowners’ operating costs.

 

Nevertheless, he said that piracy, especially off the coast of Somalia, is the international shipping industry’s main concern. And, like Whitlow, he stated that the plight of mariners should top that list.

 

Angelo recalled doing a BBC interview last year about a tanker that had been captured en route to Houston. The vessel was carrying $200 million worth of cargo.

 

“My response was, the number one concern of Intertanko and the entire shipping industry is the 35 seafarers on the ship who are being detained,” he said. “Not only that, but the 700 seafarers who were being held (in Somalia) as hostages. The response I got from the reporter was, ‘Oh, we didn’t know that, that’s very interesting. But let’s talk about the $200 million cargo.’ ”

 

He added that Intertanko deserves credit for initiating the SOS campaign, which is expanding its outreach and currently has 30 industry organizations on board. The campaign’s goals include boosting government will to eradicate piracy in part by increasing general public awareness; stopping the use of mother ships; increasing prosecution of pirates; adding naval assets in the region; and taking action ashore in Somalia to address piracy’s root causes.

 

Overall, Angelo (who led numerous U.S. delegations to the International Maritime Organization while working for the Coast Guard) said that Intertanko’s main goals all involve mariner welfare and safety: no fatalities, no pollution, no ship detentions. He stated that while some outsiders are surprised to learn that seafarers are such a big part of Intertanko’s focus, the organization is proud of its priorities and will continue working on issues including piracy, shore access, accommodation spaces, fatigue and more.

 

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