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Now that we’re done arguing with Italy, let’s talk piracy

Ten days after he got married, Santosh Yadav set sail on the merchant ship Iceberg—the beginning of a journey that he hoped would help him build his life. He almost ended up losing it.

In March, 2010, the Iceberg and its 26 crew—five of them Indian—were hijacked by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden. The pirates demanded an $8 million ransom—and when they didn’t get it, began torturing the crew. “They started beating us, and denying us food and water”, Yadav said in an interview. “We were allowed to sleep only for six hours over a few days”. He was to spend 33 months in hideous conditions. Two of his shipmates, one of whom is Indian, are still missing.

Earlier today the Supreme Court released restrictions on the Italian ambassador to India, and the road is open to set up a special court to try the Italian marines charged with killing Kerala fishermen.

Now that we’re done arguing with Italy, its time to start talking about piracy—or more precisely, what the government intends to do about it.



Even though there’s credible evidence that suggests that the Enrica Lexie marines fired without cause, India needs to give serious thought to putting armed guards on ships to protect its own sailors. Though governments across the world have been signing off on this course of action, India has resisted—in part, because of the public outrage provoked by the Enrica Lexie case.

Indian government officials argue that pirate attacks are declining—and claim that this proves there is no need for armed guards on ships. The first part of this proposition is true. Last year, the London-based International Chamber of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau reported that pirate attacks had “reached a five-year low, with 297 ships attacked worldwide, compared with 439 in 2011”.

The number of sailors taken hostage in these attacks also fell to 585, from 802 in 2011. Six crew were killed by pirates, two less than in 2011. The number of hijackings by Somali pirate cartels was halved, from 28 in 2011 to 14 last year. Just 75 ships reported Somalia-related attacks in 2012, compared with 237 in 2011.

Here’s the bad news, though: it has cost taxpayers across the world, including us, a lot more than mere small change to bring about this decline.

Three international maritime task forces are now operating an estimated forty warships—very roughly, the size of India’s entire western fleet—along with patrol aircraft, to secure shipping routes. In addition, ten national flotillas are in operation. The opacity of defence costing makes it hard to say precisely how much this multinational effort costs, but given the size of the fleet, it probably hovers at around $2 billion. India’s entire naval budget for 2012-13, as a reference point, is Rs 36,343.5 crore—just three times that.

But even this isn’t enough: it has been estimated that it would take 83 warships, with a full compliment of helicopters, to provide an half-hour response to a distress call, the typical duration of an attack. In March, 2011, the United States’ Government Accountability Office said naval analysis had “estimated that 1,000 ships equipped with helicopters would be required to provide the same level of coverage [across] the Indian Ocean that is currently provided in the Gulf of Aden—an approach that is clearly infeasible”.

From the data, it is also clear that sailors are at risk in other oceans. The International Maritime Bureau’s live piracy map shows a heavy cluster of attacks off the coast of Nigeria, and in the South China sea. Bangladesh pirates killed four Indian sailors in January. Five Indian sailors were hijacked off Nigeria in December, and only released early this year. There just aren’t enough battleships to protect everyone, all the time.

In any case, its plain silly to deploy destroyers to deal with illiterate pirates armed with little more than assault weapons: “its like firing missiles at a camel’s backside”, the naval expert C Uday Bhaskar told me.

Somali piracy imposes other costs, too.

Insurance costs have soared for all traffic passing west of Mangalore, which are now designated vulnerable. India’s shipping industry estimates the country is losing Rs 1 to Rs 2 crore a day in additional insurance. Escaping the high-risk zone doesn’t come cheap, either—rerouting cost the global shipping industry between $486-$680 million last year.

And finally there are the ransoms—the inevitable price of the life of a freed sailor. Figures are hard to come by, but the Ukrainian-flagged Faina, carrying tanks and anti-aircraft guns, netted Somali pirates $3.2 million. The Thai-owned Thor Nexus and its 27 crew were ransomed for $5 million. Pirate cartels in the Somali ports of Eyl, Xharadhere, Garard and Ras Asir earned—if that’s the right word—an estimated $176 million in 2010, and close to $160 million in 2011.

Oceans Beyond Piracy, a watchdog that researches the issue, estimated the total economic costs of piracy at between $6.6 and $6.9 billion.

Long-term solutions to the problem, everyone acknowledges, are needed. Somalia has had no government since 1991. Foreign trawlers began to prey on coastal fishing grounds with impunity, destroying a traditional source of livelihood. The flooding of the region with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers led many young men to turn to the pirate cartels that sprang up from 2005. Somalia’s western-backed administration, under siege from the powerful jihadist group al-Shabaab, has no influence outside the capital, Mogadishu.

Puntland—the quasi-independent region that is home to many pirate ports—has been trying to hit back in recent years. Its forces led an attack that led to the release of the MV Iceberg sailors. No-one in the international community, though, is willing to pay the price, in cash and blood, needed to restore full order in Somalia—and thus end piracy once and for all.

The short-term solution, painstakingly documented by scholar James Brown in a recent study, is also evident—but it’s an unpleasant one.

In 2011, shipping companies are estimated to have spent over $1 billion on private security contractors—companies who provide armed guards to merchant ships. Ever since armed guards successfully defended the Maersk Alabama in 2009, the shipping industry has demanded that it be allowed to protect its workers and high-seas assets. In 2011, the United States and United Kingdom began allowing firms to employ private armed guards. European states have opposed private guards, but are posting some numbers of armed forces personnel on private ships—like the marines on the Enrica Lexie.

India has opposed security guards on ships, private or governmental, saying it doesn’t want armies running amok on the high seas. This is a pious principle, but doesn’t answer the question of what sustainable action can be taken to protect merchant shipping.

The ground-reality—or, rather, oceanic reality—is that private security contracting is growing rapidly. Estimates from the industry suggest upwards of 3,000 guards are now employed by up to 140 firms, the bulk established in 2012. Eighteen ships are operating floating armouries in international waters, allowing companies to bypass government restrictions on bringing arms into port. Though about a quarter of ships transiting the Gulf of Aden have officially disclosed they are carrying armed guards, sources in the industry say the practice is in fact far more pervasive. Even the famous Volvo Ocean race is using private armed guards to escort its $10 million yachts.

Sri Lanka’s Galle has emerged as major port of disembarkation for private guards, who board ships before they leave ports like Djibouti, Salalah, Muscat or Dar-es-Salaam. The Sri Lanka government allows their weapons and equipment to be housed in special warehouses on naval bases, until the guards begin their return journey.

There is little doubt that the deployment of armed guards, private or governmental, has risks. In 2012, one contractor alone reported 90 encounters with pirates—18 involving exchanges of fire. The Enrica Lexie case illustrates what all security force personnel know: that where there are guns, innocent people will occasionally get killed.

However, innocent people are getting killed anyway. The sailors who are tortured and killed by Somali pirates have just as much right to live as anyone else. It is time to agree on how best to defend that right.

To read the reports quoted in this article, click on the next two pages.

James Brown Pirates and Privateers

OEF Economic Cost of Piracy, 2011