UNOSAT Global Report on Maritime Piracy – a Geospatial Analysis

As part of its UNOSAT programme, the United Nations Institute for Training and Research recently launched a global report on the geospatial analysis of piracy activities. UNOSAT uses satellite derived geoinformation in critical areas such as humanitarian relief, human security, strategic territorial and development planning.

The global report, building primarily on data maintained by the International Maritime Organization, explores how trends in geospatial patterns and severity of reported piracy incidents are developing from 1995 to 2013.

Maritime Circulation and Piracy 2006-2013

Courtesy UNOSAT Global Report on Maritime Piracy

Not surprisingly, two areas were observed because of the significant trends in piracy activities: the Western Indian Ocean, including the Gulf of Aden, and the Gulf of Guinea. In the Indian Ocean, including the Malacca Strait, and in South America, no major trends were observed. Piracy in the Malacca Strait, however, continues to be a major disruptor for safe routes in the eastern Indian Ocean.

As for the Western Indian Ocean, the following observations are made:

  • There has been a significant reduction in the number of pirate attacks during 2013 – to the extent one can claim they have almost stopped (28 incidents in 2013, of which only 8 since 15th August). Not a single vessel was hijacked;

  • The median distance from where an attack is reported to the nearest coast has dropped from close to 400 km in 2010 to under 50 km in 2013, thus indicating a considerable reduction in the radius of successful pirate activities;

  • Incidents involving the use of rocket propelled grenades, relatively heavy armour for pirates, has decreased from 43 in 2011 to 3 in 2013;

  • Ransom amounts paid to pirates have decreased from US$150M in 2011 to about US$60M in 2012;

  • In addition to the well-known feature of piracy “mother ships” from which fast-going skiffs can radiate, a new trend of floating armoury vessels supplying anti-piracy entities with weapons out in international waters is observed.

The Gulf of Guinea differs from the western Indian Ocean, although the overall number of attacks carried out is of a smaller scale:

  • The number of attacks show no sign of decreasing;

  • Attacks in the high seas have increased, while attacks in ports are on the decrease;

  • The types of attacks have gone from low-intensity towards more violent acts;

  • The Financial losses to the national economies for countries with ports in the Gulf of Guinea are considerable. This has forced certain countries to take military action that has proven successful.

The findings confirm the already well-known trends in modern day piracy in these areas.

Several organisations collect and analyse data relevant to piracy. While there have been major improvements in information-sharing, this is yet another area in the fight against piracy which suffered from fragmentation of approaches and consequently from dispersion of resources. The report thus provide for a number of recommendations for standardisation and possible better coordination.

Notably, the report advocates for the creation of a “severity index” to better differentiate the gravity in the use of violence during reported incidents in future data collection and analysis. The report indeed remarks how for close to half of reported piracy incidents no threat of violence has been reported. A similar index is used by the ReCAAP in monitoring piracy incidents in South East Asia.

The report also highlights how the distance from the coasts from which the pirate carry out their attacks is correlated to the pirates’ technical and operational capabilities and could thus function as an early predictor of an escalation in the attacks.

Weekly Piracy Review: United Nations Involvement

Romanian boarding team brings suspected pirates and their skiff back to the ROS Regele Ferdinand

Wednesday morning (November 21) a Swedish air patrol reported the presence of a suspicious skiff off the coast of Somalia. Romanian and Turkish warships approached the skiff, and the suspected pirates attempted to evade capture for about an hour. The warships were assisted in their pursuit by a Luxembourg helicopter, which easily kept track of the skiff. Finally, the Turkish team was able to search the boat while the nine suspected pirates were detained onboard the Romanian warship. The skiff  had been sighted earlier in known pirate waters, and no fishing supplies were found. Despite the strong suspicion that this was a pirate boat, the EU team determined that there was not sufficient evidence to build a case and prosecute these men, as they were not caught actually committing any crimes. The suspects were released onto a Somali beach on Thursday. After releasing the men EU naval forces sunk the skiff, causing these suspected pirates to lose their fuel, transportation, and ladders; and hopefully ensuring that these pirates will not be able to return to the seas in the near future. Rear Adm. Duncan Potts, the force’s operation commander, stated: “My message to the pirates is clear — we are watching you and we plan to capture you if you put to sea.”

Vietnamese boarding team re-captured hijacked Malaysian chemical tanker; arrested 11 suspected pirates

On November 17, a Malaysian-owned chemical tanker was hijacked in the South China Sea by a group of Indonesian pirates and taken to Vietnamese waters. After the International Maritime Bureau sent out an alert, Vietnamese authorities re-captured the vessel (which had been repainted and reflagged) and arrested the eleven suspected pirates on November 22. The nine crew members who were on board the hijacked tanker were forced into a life raft and released at sea on Wednesday. They were all rescued by local fishermen. This attack, the hijacking of a laden tanker, is said to be the first of its kind in the region in several years.

As previously reported here and here, Indian Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri holds the UN Security Council presidency this month, and convened the first Security Council debate on the general threat to world peace and security posed by maritime piracy. Puri stated that forty-three Indian citizens are currently being held hostage by pirates, and it is estimated that piracy costs the maritime industry at least $6.6 billion annually for security. U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson said that countries who are involved in counter-piracy operations need better communication with each other, and called for an agreement on the rules regulating the placement of private armed guards on merchant ships. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice asserted that no ship carrying armed guards has been successfully hijacked, but the merits are controversial. Russian and Italian private guards have inadvertently fired on and killed fishermen off the coast of Somalia, mistakenly believing they were pirates approaching with the intent to board. French Ambassador Gerard Araud emphasized the greater deterrent effect that government-posted naval patrols have in warding off attacks. He also stressed the fact that about 80% of those arrested on suspicion of piracy are released without facing any prosecution, and that there is a need for a more efficient system of justice. More than twenty different nations have apprehended pirates off the coast of Somalia, and without a system in place to handle those arrested, many have simply been released back to Somalia. Though piracy is down this year, it is widely accepted that there must continue to be a strong focus on counter-piracy measures, or attacks will increase again.

Hardeep Singh Puri, Indian Ambassador to the UN, called for Security Council debate on piracy

The following day, the Security Council renewed authorizations put in place in 2008, which were developed to allow international cooperation in the fight against piracy. The Council emphasized the role Somalia is expected to play in these efforts and requested that the nation pass a complete set of anti-piracy laws. It also called on all member states to fully criminalize acts of piracy and assist Somalia in its implementation of more effective policies to combat the problem. The development of specialized anti-piracy courts in Somalia and other similarly affected states was termed a priority. South Africa’s representative, while agreeing that the adoption of these measures is an important step, emphasized that as a whole the efforts ought to include measures to combat the root causes of piracy in order to stop it before it starts.

The International Maritime Bureau reports that as of November 20, there have been 261 total attacks worldwide and twenty-six hijackings worldwide so far this year. Of those numbers, Somalia accounts for seventy-one incidents and thirteen hijackings, with 212 total hostages. Currently, Somali pirates hold nine vessels and 154 hostages.

Update: Mekong Pirates Sentenced to Death

Further to his earlier conviction for the murder of 13 chinese sailors on the Mekong River last year, notorious former druglord Naw Kham has been sentenced to death today by the Intermediate People’s Court of Kunming, in China’s Yunnan province. We blogged on the Mekong River murders here. The incident was one of the deadliest assaults on Chinese nationals overseas and prompted unprecedented joint boat patrols along the river.

Naw Kham Upon His Transfer from Laos to China for Trial in May this Year – Asian Correspondent

Three of Naw Kham’s gang members were also sentenced to death, another received a  suspended death sentence while one was sentenced to eight years in prison, respectively. They had all pleaded guilty on a 3-day long trial in September this year. We previously blogged about the Mekong Trial here. The defendants were also ordered  to pay compensations to the victims families. They all said they will appeal the verdict.

 

Weekly Piracy Review: International Cooperation

This week the 8th Heads of Asian Coast Guard Agencies Meeting convened in New Delhi. Defense Minister A.K. Antony asserted India’s commitment to bolstering security against a myriad of threats in the Indian Ocean, and specifically addressed the continued need for anti-piracy efforts. Antony emphasized the need for cooperation among countries to implement international laws in the region in order to combat the ever-changing effects of problems such as maritime piracy.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) began a maritime forum in Manila on Wednesday, and is scheduled to run through today. Topics for discussion included maritime security and piracy. In addition to discussion regarding territorial disputes over islands in the South China Sea, the members are likely considering an initiative proposed by the Philippines to facilitate information exchange and sharing among nations. The hope is that this exchange will provide timely information to allow law enforcement agencies to effectively combat security threats such as piracy.

The Indian government authorized training of Navy Special Forces to deploy Marine Commando squads on merchant ships. These squads will be authorized to carry long-range weapons, and will travel with ships in the Indian Ocean extending to the sea around Somalia in an effort to alleviate piracy concerns. Currently merchant ships in the area rely on private security companies to prevent successful piracy efforts in taking hostages and seizing cargo. So far the reliance on private security guards has been effective, as no ship with armed guards has been successfully hijacked. This situation is by no means perfect, as the level of training and experience of these private guards is widely varied, and can lead to uncertainty and nervousness when the guards are thrust into a hostile situation. As India begins to allow trained military on-board merchant vessels it shall be seen whether this will be an effective approach.

The Mekong Pirates on Trial

For 3 days at the end of last week, the Intermediate People’s Court in Kunming, the capital of the Yunnan Province in southwest China, was the stage for yet another high profile, yet swift, criminal trial. The case involved the mysterious murder of 13 Chinese sailors on the Golden Triangle’s area of the Mekong River in October last year. We have blogged about the incident here, focusing in particular on China’s unprecedented role in strengthening law enforcement in the strategic Mekong River basin. Since the murders, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar and even Thailand joined China in holding several military patrols across the lawless boundary waters.

The Mekong River Trial in Session at the Intermediary People’s Court in Kunming

The murders, one the deadliest assault on Chinese nationals oversea, sparked a large public outcry in China. It therefore comes as little surprise that the trial attracted much attention from the Chinese press. Among the 6 defendants was Naw Kham (aka Nor Kham aka Jai Norkham),a member of Myanmar’s Shan ethnic minority and a notorious once-untouchable drug lord and gang leader who for years is thought to have ruthlessly run the drug and other illicit trade in the Golden Triangle area. Naw Kham was arrested in April in Laos in another joint military sting operation and traded over to China shortly thereafter. Prior to his arrest, only two blurred pictures of Naw Kham were said to exist.

Naw Kham is Extradited to Beijing amid Tight Security – Xinhua

Much of the news regarding the investigation and trial is limited to Chinese media, with only a few outlets providing reporting in the English language. The holding of the trial has been hailed as another example, further to the joint river patrols, of China’s growing concern over cross-border security issues and its novel policy of regional cooperation in combating international crimes. Indeed, it is unlikely that the arrest and trial of the alleged perpetrators could have taken place in such a swift manner without China’s involvement. As discussed in another previous post, most notably this policy included China’s unprecedented participation in the international anti-piracy patrols off the coast of Somalia and in the larger Gulf of Aden area. Chinese media praised the trial as a model of judicial cooperation, coupling armed drug trafficking gangs on the Mekong and Somali pirates as “common enemies of mankind” and calling for their prosecution as a duty of all States. This is a remarkable development in the debate over the universal nature of piracy prosecution but also, leaving piracy aside, in the more controversial debate over modern China’s sovereignty and its role in large-scale international cooperation. However, China’s sudden primary stance in the Mekong murders also seems to be a show of strength in view of other disputes concerning the economic development in the Mekong River basin as well as in other areas of economic interest in Asia.

After allegedly confessing his role in the Mekong River murders upon his arrest and recanting it in a recent interview, the media reports that Naw Kham partially admitted knowledge of the murders at the beginning of the short trial, which then concluded with his full admission of guilt and plea for leniency. All other defendants, members of Naw Kham’s gang, promptly confessed their responsibility upon the opening of the trial. They were all accused of murder, drug trafficking, kidnapping and hijacking and now face the possibility of the death penalty. During the trial, simultaneous interpretation was provided in Laotian and Thai to accommodate the testimony of foreign policemen and witnesses from Laos and Thailand. Such testimonies are apparently unprecedented in Chinese judicial proceedings. China asserted jurisdiction over the case upon its direct links with the crimes and the victims as well as within the general framework of regional cooperation within the Mekong River. Chinese media also praised the trial as a demonstration of the efficiency of Chinese judiciary to the rest of the world. From an international justice perspective, however, doubts still remain as to the procedural fairness and completeness of such fast-paced trials whose outcome increasingly relies on the defendant confession. Interestingly, the arrest and trial of Naw Kham seems to have fallen under Interpol’s radar, as at the time of writing Naw Kham still remains on its Most Wanted Fugitive List.

Naw Kham Arrives in Court Blindfolded – Not a Common Procedure Everywhere – Xinhua

According to the prosecution, the Chinese boat refused to pay protection money for safe-passage in Naw Kham controlled areas and the murders were framed as a drug related incident to set an example. Several aspects of the murders, however, remain unclear. In particular, one possibly relevant factual element of the case appears to have been given limited consideration, namely the alleged participation in the murders of 9 members of the Thai military, part of an army unit responsible for security along the Mekong. Initial investigations by Chinese authorities already revealed a role played by a group of Thai military. It is still unclear whether they acted in collusion with Naw Kham’s gang. Investigation by Thai authorities, who are currently holding the soldiers as suspects, appear to show conclusive and corroborative evidence of the Thai soldiers shooting at the Chinese boats once they crossed over into Thailand.