Oil Tanker Pirated Off Ghana Coast

On June 7th, reports surfaced that a Liberian tanker had gone missing off the coast of Ghana.  The captain had apparently made a distress call reporting that the vessel was being attacked by pirates.  As of today, the ship remains missing; unfortunately, is it likely that it has been pirated and we can only speculate as to the kinds of demands that pirates will make regarding the ship and its crewmembers.

Although piracy has been on the decline off the coast of Somalia, in 2013 the number of piracy attacks rose by one-third off the coast of West Africa, thereby driving up insurance rates and threatening the safety of maritime routes in this region.  The root cause of West African piracy seems to be the uprising in the Nigerian oil-rich Niger Delta, where criminal networks and gangs have blossomed.  West African pirates typically hijack larger ships carrying precious cargo, such as oil.  Attacks have taken place in Nigeria, but also off the coasts of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, undermining the development of West Africa as an oil and gas hub by destabilizing deliveries.  West African pirates seem particularly daring.  In an earlier attack, in January 2014, they attacked a vessel off the coast of Angola and sailed it all the way up to Nigeria.

As I have reported earlier on this blog, the development of West African piracy is a serious concern, as it threatens to destabilize the region and thwart economic development.  Unfortunately, it is questionable whether lessons learning from the global combat against Somali piracy will be of any value, as the two piracy models differ on many levels.  The rise of West African piracy underscores the need for the international community to continue its anti-piracy efforts, despite a decline in Somali piracy attacks.

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.

Piracy Best Practices Adapt to West Africa’s Setting

The surge of piracy in West Africa prompted some of the main stakeholders in the maritime industry to develop interim guidelines for the protection against piracy in the region. The guidelines, endorsed by the IMO, aim to bridge the gap between the prevailing situation in West Africa and the advice currently available in the fight against piracy. They complement one another and are to be read in conjunction with the Best Management Practices (BMP4) originally adopted to address piracy in the Gulf of Aden.

Worthy of note is that the Guidelines identify the area off the coast of Nigeria, Togo and Benin as at major risk, although pirates are rather flexible in their operation and attacks have also occurred elsewhere. Significant is the absence in the region of regular patrolling missions by international navies, a designated group transit area or a specific information and coordination centre akin to the UKMTO or MSCHOA in the Gulf of Aden. In the event of a pirate attack, the main point of reference is currently the Regional Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, run by the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency in Lagos.

With regards to the pirates’ modus operandi, their activity is normally confined to armed robbery of valuables from the ship’s safe, IT equipment and personal effects while the ship is approaching or anchored off ports; and cargo theft, mainly directed at oil and chemical tankers and involving the ship’s hijack for several days until the cargo is transferred by well-organized and coordinated cartels. Pirates appear to possess intelligence-gathering and maritime skills. While kidnapping occurred on some occasions, generally in connection with cargo theft or in areas characterized by political instability, ransom does not appear to be among the pirates’ primary objectives. Although this is a significant difference with Somali pirates, the fact that a ship’s crew is not seen as a value might in turn heighten safety risks, which is consistent with the fact that West African pirates have shown a greater level of violence during attacks. Engaging in a fight with the pirates is therefore strongly discouraged.

Finally, while it is possible to obtain authorization to employ protective services such as military or  police as armed escorts, the use of private armed guards is problematic, given the diversity of the legal, security and administrative frameworks and particularly considering that attacks are likely to take place within the territorial waters of States in the region, which often do not allow the operation of private security companies.

Regional States Play Key Role in Fight against Piracy in West Africa

It has been some time since we first and last spoke about the escalation of maritime piracy and armed robbery at sea in West Africa. The United Nations Security Council recently issued a statement dedicated to the emerging threat of piracy in West Africa, calling for States in the region to play a key role in countering piracy and addressing its underlying causes:

“The Security Council stresses the importance of adopting a comprehensive approach led by the countries of the region to counter the threat of piracy and armed robbery at sea in the Gulf of Guinea, as well as related criminal activities, and to address their underlying causes. The Security Council recognizes the efforts of the countries in the region in adopting relevant measures in accordance with international law to counter piracy and armed robbery at sea and to address transnational organized crime, such as drug trafficking, as well as other measures to enhance maritime safety and security.”

With the technical support of specialized UN and regional agencies, West Africa’s heads of State have already taken steps to counter piracy, including the holding of a regional meeting in Yaoundé, Cameroon, which culminated with the adoption of the Code of Conduct concerning the Prevention and Repression of Piracy, Armed Robbery against Ships, and Illegal Maritime Activities in West and Central Africa and the establishment of a coordination centre for the implementation of a regional strategy for maritime safety and security. The centre should contribute to the implementation of multi-national and trans-regional mechanisms covering the whole region of the Gulf of Guinea.

Piracy in West Africa has emerged as an additional threat to safety and trade in the region, with the number of reported attacks now surpassing those off the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden. While piracy in Somalia was borne out of the collapse of State institutions and their failure to counter insecurity and enforce the rule of law, West Africa is characterized by more stable governments with enforcement powers on their territory through naval and military assets. West African States are therefore in a position, and have a duty, to play a more direct role in the fight against piracy in the region. Piracy in West Africa, however, shows links with organized transnational criminality, such as drugs, natural resources and people smuggling and thrives through corruption at both the local and central administration level, which, in turn, creates discontent and lack of trust amongst the population. Independence movements have also degenerated into committing acts of terrorism. For some time, these phenomena have plagued the region and provided the conditions for the resurgence of piracy. Among the main challenges in combating piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is therefore the development of a coordinated approach driven at the regional level, bringing together costal States as well as regional organizations and encompassing the sharing of resources, intelligence and information within the framework of a common plan of action. While fundamental distinctions remain in the pirates’ modus operandi between West and East Africa, this approach can build upon some of the lessons learned in the so far successful strategy to combat piracy in the Gulf of Aden, including the modernization and harmonization of national criminal codes, upgrading of detention facilities and other infrastructures and other training or capacity building initiatives.

Piracy: Declining in the Gulf of Aden, Rising in the Gulf of Guinea

We are pleased to welcome Milena Sterio as a contributing author to Communis Hostis Omnium. She is an Associate Professor at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, where she teaches international law and international criminal law.  She has published numerous articles on the topic of maritime piracy, and she frequently lectures on this topic.  She is a member of the Piracy Working Group, an expert think tank founded by members of the prominent non-governmental organization, the Public International Law and Policy Group.  In her capacity as Piracy Working Group member, she traveled to the Seychelles and to Mauritius, where she consulted with local prosecutors and judges on best strategies toward successful national piracy prosecutions.

A crew member prepares to board a tanker that was hijacked by pirates in Benin on 24 July 2011. Photo: IRIN/Daniel Hayduk

Maritime piracy in the Gulf of Aden and elsewhere in the Indian Ocean appears to be on the decline.  In 2012, only 35 piracy attacks took place, compared to 163 attacks in 2009.  As of January 2013, Somali pirates were holding 4 large ships with an estimated 108 hostages.  In the past, the pirates had held dozens of ships and several hundred hostages at one time.  Some news reports indicate that many Somali pirates seem ready to abandon this once lucrative criminal endeavor.  Last year, Mohamed Abdi Hassan, a high-profile Somali pirate, was quoted as saying “I have given up piracy and succeeded in encouraging more youths to give up piracy.”

This decline in piratical activity off the east cost of the African continent is most likely due to several factors.  First, the Gulf of Aden and other waters of the Indian Ocean have been more heavily patrolled by joint maritime forces of several nations, including European Union and NATO-led fleets.  The presence of naval forces in these waters has deterred some pirates from attempting attacks on merchant ships.  Second, many merchant and passenger cruise ships sailing off the east coast of Africa have been staffed with armed security guards.  Statistics show that no successful pirate attack has ever occurred against a ship protected by armed guards.  Third, Somali pirates seemed to engage in the crime of piracy because it represented a lucrative business opportunity, which posed minimal risk and promised tens of thousands of dollars in financial gains.  Today, piracy is a more risky endeavor, because of the presence of naval fleets in the Indian Ocean as well as armed guards aboard ships.  Thus, Somali pirates may seem willing to abandon this criminal enterprise in order to possibly explore other kinds of opportunities.

Yet, although piracy seems to be declining off the east coast of Africa, the opposite is true for the west coast of the African continent.  Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, home to major oil-producing states such as Nigeria, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Ghana, has been on the rise.  34 piracy incidents were recorded between January and September 2012, up from thirty in 2011. Togo reported more attacks in 2012 than in the previous five years combined, with three vessels hijacked, two boarded and six attempted attacks.  Piracy has also been on the rise in Benin.  In addition, Nigeria reported over twenty attacks in 2012.  And on February 3, 2013, a French oil tanker was reported missing off the Ivory Coast; according to the International Maritime Bureau, the ship was probably pirated off the shores of Nigeria.

The piracy model in the Gulf of Guinea resembles its counterpart in the Gulf of Aden in terms of the pirates’ modus operandi: in West Africa, pirates sail out to the sea on larger vessels but then launch attacks using smaller skiffs.  In addition, pirates in West Africa seem to be resorting to this crime because of factors similar to those that have existed in Somalia for several decades: insecurity, poverty, as well as a lack of education and employment opportunities.  However, while Somali pirates seemed mostly after collecting ransoms from shipping companies in exchange for the crew and cargo, pirates in West Africa seem more interested in keeping the cargo (mostly oil) of any successful hijacking operations, which they then sell on the black market.  Reports also indicate that pirates in the Gulf of Guinea are more prone to violence, and that they act in more brutal ways toward the captured crewmembers.  And because the Gulf of Guinea is a rich oil-producing region, its strategic importance, and thus the necessity of curbing the rising piracy threat, may be even greater than the piracy menace in the Gulf of Aden had ever been.

Unsurprisingly, like in the case of Somali piracy, the United Nations Security Council has become involved in finding solutions for this developing regional crisis.  On February 29, 2012, the Security Council adopted resolution 2039 calling on the Secretary-General to “support efforts towards mobilising resources following the creation of the regional strategy to assist in building national and regional capacities in close consultation with states and regional and extraregional organizations.”  Furthermore, on October 31, 2012, the United Nations Security Council, in resolution 2018, condemned all acts of maritime piracy and armed robbery at sea in West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea and encouraged states in the region to work together toward a comprehensive response to the menace of piracy.  The Security Council, in this unanimously adopted resolution, encouraged several regional organizations (the Council encouraged the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) and the Gulf of Guinea Commission (GGC)) to jointly develop a strategy against maritime piracy.  Such joint strategy could entail the drafting of more comprehensive domestic laws which would criminalize piracy and armed robbery at sea, as well as the development of an information-sharing regional center.  Moreover, the regional anti-piracy efforts could include the development of domestic laws which would implement international agreements existing in the field of international maritime law.  In addition, ECOWAS, ECCAS and GGC could engage in bilateral or regional maritime patrols in the Gulf of Guinea, in order to ensure the safety of maritime navigation and thwart potential piratical attacks.  Finally, the Security Council urged member states of ECOWAS, ECCAS, and GGC to cooperate with other states, such as states where ships are registered, and states where victims or perpetrators come from, in the prosecution of pirates as well as of piracy facilitators and financiers, in accordance with applicable international law.   The Security Council thus encouraged all states in the international community to assist countries in the region in strengthening anti-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Guinea.

Like the Security Council, the Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, has also expressed his intention to focus on the piracy problem in the Gulf of Guinea, by deploying a United Nations assessment mission to the region in order to explore options on how to best address the problem.  According to the Secretary-General, piracy in the Gulf of Guinea could hinder economic development and undermine security in the region.

Within the next few months, the Security Council expects a briefing from Said Djinnit, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative and head of the UN Office for West Africa (UNOWA), on the Secretary-General’s semi-annual report, including an update on the Gulf of Guinea piracy problem.  The international community will have hopefully learned from the Gulf of Aden piracy epidemic, which seems to have been successfully curbed through coordinated international maritime efforts, that anti-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Guinea will similarly require international and regional strategy and a comprehensive anti-piracy plan.