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Thu. October 18, 2018
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Q&A on Somali piracy by Cdr. Gurpreet Khurana
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Why have there been so many pirate attacks off Somalia? Pirate attacks began to increase rapidly off the Somali coast in 2005. The reason is the politico-social instability in Somalia, which led to many problems like poverty, unemployment and civil-strife, as well as war-lordism. Piracy germinated under these conditions. Why can’t the International Maritime Bureau not act to curb piracy? What are the prospects for security cooperation among countries in the region to combat piracy? The IMB is a commercial, not inter-governmental, organization headquartered in Kuala Lumpur, so it has no naval resources to do this. But certainly a country like India can take the initiative to mobilize the cooperation of regional countries, who can pool-in their naval resources to tackle piracy. At this moment, India is doing this on a bilateral basis and under the overarching rubric of IONS (Indian Ocean Naval symposium). But it remains to be seen whether this will succeed because countries will hesitate to commit their resources unless their security interests are directly involved. You will appreciate that it costs money and also degrades the operational effectiveness of naval assets. What role can the UN play in suppressing piracy? Under Article 41 of the U.N. Charter, the UN can authorize a naval task-force to counter piracy. India has been asking for this force. This is essential as a comprehensive security measure because there have been many instances where the warships of western countries have declined to act against pirates since the victim merchant vessel was not owned or registered in that particular western country or did not carry western crew members. How does international law authorize navies to combat piracy? Who will have the legal right prosecute of the apprehended pirates? The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), 1982, which came into force in Nov 1994 classifies sea-piracy as a "crime against humanity" and therefore, authorizes the navy of any country to interdict pirates in international waters. The UNCLOS also authorizes the apprehending country to prosecute the pirates under its own domestic laws. The case of the hijacked Japanese ship "Alondra Rainbow" is the best example. In 1999, Indian Navy captured the Indonesian pirates who had hijacked the ship and were given a 7-year jail sentence by an Indian court. Was the Indian Navy's recent action over what it believed to be a pirate ship justified? Yes. Even if it was the Thai fishing vessel, as per international law, once the pirates have taken over the vessel, it effectively becomes a pirate vessel. Furthermore, navy’s action to fire was as a response to the vessel’s resistance and threat posed to INS Tabar. The Royal Navy warship said they knew about the pirates' boarding the Ekawat Nava 5 and they hesitated to act believing that might result in the pirates harming the crew. Why was there no contact established between Indian Navy and IMB? A direct and real-time communication with IMB will undoubtedly be invaluable for the patrolling ships for better maritime domain-awareness (MDA), so that the decision-making for initiating an action can factor in all essential information. This need is not specific to the Indian navy, but to all of the two dozen ships patrolling off Somalia. Unfortunately, to my mind, such a mechanism is grossly ineffective, even if at all it does exist. As regards the fact that the Royal Navy was aware of the pirate attack on Ekawat Nava 5 (as mentioned in Question 3), this was not as a result of a regular institutionalized information-sharing mechanism, but rather a ‘one-off’ case wherein the Thai Managing Director of Sirichai Fisheries requested the IMB to ascertain whether any warship was in the area. It was on this request that the IMB initiated the process of contacting the warships. Notwithstanding the above, in this particular case (sinking of Ekawat Nava 5), I’m not sure that INS Tabar awareness (of earlier pirate attack on Ekawat Nava 5) would have made any difference in how the IN reacted to the threat from pirates on board Ekawat Nava 5. Furthermore, it is unlikely that the vessel had Thai fishermen onboard at the time the incident occurred. If the fishermen were present, the pirates would have certainly used them as hostages to compel INS Tabar to withdraw. The question also proves that there is no communication between the navies patrolling the Gulf. The communication is evidently restricted to intra-group warships, whether it is Task Force-150 or NATO. Are there any rules in place for Indian warships to wait for the final word from shore authorities before firing in international waters? Whenever a warship sails for an operational mission, it carries with it certain broad guidelines with regard to the use of force. These are the ‘Rules of Engagement’. You would appreciate that this is extremely essential. Because if the warship’s Captain has to seek firing orders from its base headquarters or Naval Headquarters each time he encounters a hostile situation, the mission will certainly fail. The sailor who survived from the blowing up of the ship was found adrift in the middle of the sea by a passing ship, days later. Why did not the Indian Navy wait until the next morning to check the wreckage of the destroyed ship for possible clues and possible survivors? The conditions in open sea make this a futile effort. In any timeframe of more than 4-6 hours, due to the ocean currents, any wreckage or survivors would have drifted too far away to be sighted or detected on radar. Cdr Gurpreet S Khurana (Indian Navy) is a research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses in New Delhi

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