- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 9, 2003

Pirate attacks and armed robbery on the high seas have tripled in the past decade, particularly in Asian waters and the Pacific region, the International Maritime Bureau of the International Chamber of Commerce says.

“The figures are going up over the years since 1991,” especially in Southeast Asia, Capt. Jayant Abhyankar, deputy director of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), told The Washington Times. “One of the reasons is a sort of economic downturn in this region in the last few years,” he said.

The IMB’s 2002 report showed 370 incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships as defined in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. More than 45 percent of the attacks last year occurred in Southeast Asia, while 18 percent occurred off South America, 18 percent near Africa and 17 percent in the Indian Ocean.

Six crew members were killed, 50 wounded, 38 went missing and 38 were thrown overboard in the attacks.

The IMB reports an increase in pirate attacks this year. From January to March, they equaled the number of attacks for all of 1993.

For the first six months of the year, 234 ship attacks were reported, an increase of 37 percent from the 171 incidents in the same period last year. From January through June this year, 16 seafarers were killed, 20 were reported missing and 52 were injured. The number of people taken hostage more than doubled.

The 2002 report showed that Indonesian waters are the most dangerous, with 103 incidents reported. Capt. Abhyankar said this can be explained in part by the large number of islands in Indonesia, which makes law enforcement difficult.

Bangladesh, with 32 attacks, had the second-highest number of pirate attacks last year, and India was third with 18 attacks. The waters off Somalia and Nigeria and in the Malacca Straits and the Gulf of Aden also were dangerous.

In addition to human safety and environmental issues, piracy also can be considered an economic problem, as more than 90 percent of the world’s trade is estimated to be carried by sea.

Tetsuma Esaki, Japan’s vice foreign minister at the time, said in his opening speech at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Conference on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships in April 2000 that piracy is a threat to the transportation routes of Japan and “could also have a major impact on the social stability and economic prosperity of the entire region.”

“Social factors such as poverty and a high unemployment rate — caused by, among other things, the impact of the currency and economic crises that broke out in the summer of 1997 — are said to lie in the background of maritime armed robberies in Asia,” he said.

Capt. Abhyankar said a lack of law enforcement and light penalties also can explain the increase in pirate attacks.

“In very rare cases, the pirates are actually caught and prosecuted. So if this is the reaction from the law enforcement, you are not going to solve the problem because pirates get more and more brave as they carry on their activities,” he said.

For example, while an Indian court sentenced 14 Indonesian pirates to seven years of hard labor each in February for hijacking a Japanese-owned vessel, and Chinese courts sentenced tanker hijackers this year to between 10 and 15 years in prison, Indonesian authorities recently sentenced a band of hijackers to two to four years’ imprisonment.

“Some countries have taken very good actions — like India and Malaysia, where they have been very proactive in catching pirates. But certain countries, like Indonesia, in particular,” have not been effective, he said.

The IMB also reports an alarming rise of violence in these attacks, especially because pirates have acquired more sophisticated equipment, such as patrol boats, mother ships or a range of high-tech weapons, such as rocket-propelled grenades or submachine guns.

In the Malacca Straits — bordered by Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore — several oil tankers recently had to face gangs of heavily armed pirates in fishing vessels and speedboats. One, the Penrider, which was carrying 1,000 tons of fuel oil, was attacked in August by 14 pirates armed with assault rifles who took members of the crew hostage and held them until a ransom was paid.

The IMB said this wave of attacks in Malacca Straits follows a pattern set by Indonesian Aceh rebels, who try to fund their political cause by holding hostages for ransom. “Political reasons partly explain piracy. It happens in some areas like one area of Somalia where there is no government,” Capt. Abhyankar said.

Technical systems exist to prevent pirate attacks on ships by mustering the crew. In addition to traditional alarms, the latest innovation is a nonlethal, electrifying fence with a 9,000-volt pulse surrounding the whole ship to deter boarding attempts.

However, the belief is that the fight against piracy can be won only through worldwide cooperation, especially because of the cost and the difficulty of providing a force to police the oceans.

“We need to recognize fully that the problem of piracy must not be viewed solely as a matter of maritime law enforcement, but as part of our efforts to counter transnational, organized crimes that emerge against the backdrop of various social and economic problems,” Mr. Esaki said at the ASEAN conference.

As a new approach to solving piracy problems, Japan’s coast guard has sent patrol vessels to India, Malaysia and the Philippines for joint training to combat piracy.

“To deal with this kind of international crime, it is necessary to step up broad-based multinational efforts to combat transnational organized crime,” Mr. Esaki said.

Since its creation in October 1992, the Malaysia-based IMB Piracy Reporting Center has maintained a round-the-clock watch on this issue by publishing weekly updates about attacks and warnings about piracy hot spots.

In addition of alerting ships about suspect movements and assisting owners and crews that have been attacked, the IMB ocean crime unit collects information about dubious or unexplained craft movements, and boarding and armed robbery of ships, and issues frequent status reports about these problems.

“The Piracy Reporting Center is not law enforcement,” Capt. Abhyankar said. “The crews report [piracy incidents] to us, and we use that information to put pressure on governments to do something,” he said.

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