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.

Ahead of Security Council Debate, Secretary General Outlines Anti-Piracy Progress

As anticipated by Roger, on 19 November 2012 the UN Security Council is scheduled to hold an open debate on piracy as a threat to international peace and security. The meeting is called under the auspices of India’s current presidency. Earlier this month, the Council already approved the extension of the UN-AU joint military mission in Somalia (AMISOM) until March 2013, in another effort to provide continuity in security and governance to the current state authorities. Yet, the Council failed to reach an agreement on the funding of a maritime component for AMISOM. The Council also received the latest 3-montlhy report of the Sanctions Committee for Somalia. The briefing included an update on requests received by the Committee for exemptions to the on-going arms embargo on Somalia. It appears that calls by the African Union for a partial lifting of the arms embargo to strengthen Somalia’s poorly equipped military were so far unsuccessful.

Nigerian Troops Attached to AMISOM on Patrol in Mogadishu – Press TV

The upcoming debate will review the most recent UN Secretary General efforts to combat piracy in the Gulf of Aden region, contained in his latest report on this matter. The report covers the most important activities relevant to the fight against piracy launched by or in cooperation with the UN following the Council’s Resolution 2020 last year. These include the progress in prosecution, detention and transfer of convicted pirates, the activity of the main UN bodies and of the Contact Group on Piracy Off the Coast of Somalia, naval patrolling and anti-piracy capacity building in the region as well as a number of international conferences. Throughout the year, we have covered these issues here, here and here.

Interestingly, the report takes quite a direct stance on the impact of illegal fishing and illegal dumping toward piracy:

64.  Some observers continue to argue that illegal dumping of toxic waste and illegal fishing off the coast of Somalia is one of the factors responsible for forcing Somali youths to resort to piracy and attack foreign vessels because such activities deprive them from engaging in gainful employment opportunities. However, the United Nations has received little evidence to date to justify such claims. Most pirate attacks have been carried out against large merchant vessels several hundred nautical miles off the coast of Somalia.

65.  As for the dumping of toxic waste on land and at sea, while this may have occurred a few years ago in the waters off the coast of Somalia, there is no evidence of such activities currently. Concerns about the protection of the marine environment and resources should not be allowed to mask the true nature of piracy off the coast of Somalia, which is a transnational criminal enterprise driven primarily by the opportunity for financial gain.

The possibility for a specialized judicial structure solely devoted to investigate and prosecute piracy cases is also still gaining some momentum. The report refers to the initiative by Qatar for the establishment of a “special court for piracy” in the Gulf State (para. 42). As a first step, a delegation from UNODC and the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia visited Qatar last September for detailed discussions with the Qatari authorities. Additional initiatives pertain to a possible direct involvement of the UN in anti-piracy policing activities. The Asian Shipowners’ Forum called for the establishment of a multinational anti-piracy military task force under the auspices of the UN that could be deployed, a sort of UN Peacekeeping Vessel Protection Detachment on board of merchant ships (para. 43). These developments are not ripe for further exploration in the Secretary General report, but they raise fascinating preliminary legal issues. For instance, on the jurisdiction of special criminal fora, rule of law enforcement and the immunity of peacekeepers in connection with the prevention and punishment of universal jurisdiction crimes, that are worth considering for discussion in the near future.

Unused Pirate Skiffs in the Somali Town of Hobyo – AP

The most updated figures show a significant drop of both attempted and successful piracy attacks in the Gulf of Aden and the larger Indian Ocean area, speaking volume of the regional, international, government-lead as well as the private industry’s efforts in combating piracy. With the end of the monsoon season and the possible risk of disengagement by the international community as Somalia continues its current path of democratization, the jury is still out on how effective these efforts have been and what, if any, the pirates’ next move will be. These concerns are addressed in the report, which also recalls the need to add focus on land-based solutions to piracy:

74.  The recent gains made by the international community in its collective fight against piracy off the coast of Somalia are encouraging. However, although there are signs of progress, they can be easily reversed. Until the root causes of piracy, namely, instability, lawlessness and a lack of effective governance in Somalia, are addressed, counter-piracy efforts must not be minimized. In particular, ongoing efforts to build the rule of law and livelihood opportunities ashore should be intensified.

75.  A significant gap still exists in land-based programmes in Somalia to address piracy. This is primarily owing to the lack of security on the ground and lack of sufficient funding to support capacity-building and alternative livelihoods. An ever greater emphasis must now be placed on providing focused assistance to States in the region and to authorities in Somalia to build their capacity to deal with the institutional and operational challenges to governance, the rule of law, maritime law enforcement and security, and economic growth. In addition, counter-piracy actions should run alongside a concerted effort to rebuild the civil structures and institutions of Somalia in close cooperation with the Somali authorities and civil society.

76.  The successful end of the political transition in Somalia should act as a catalyst to address the root causes of piracy. I encourage the new Government to develop a comprehensive national counter-piracy strategy, working closely with the regional administrations and neighbouring States. This should include efforts to facilitate the development of skills necessary to earn sustainable incomes in such sectors as agriculture, livestock, fisheries and industry. I also call upon the Somali authorities to adopt appropriate counter-piracy legislation without further delay to ensure the effective prosecution of individuals suspected of piracy and to facilitate the transfer of prosecuted individuals elsewhere to Somalia. The new Government should proclaim an exclusive economic zone off the Somali coast in accordance with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

77.  Although pirates’ proceeds decreased significantly in 2012 owing to a lower number of executed attacks, militias and parallel illicit activities sponsored by pirate money will continue to pose a threat to the stability and security of Somalia. It is imperative that pressure on Somali pirates and their business model be maintained.

The current lull in piracy activity in Somalia is, however, matched by a growing rise of violent robbery-style pirate attacks in West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea, often connected with other illicit activities of a transmaritime and transnational nature. The Security Council already held an open debate on piracy in West Africa in October 2011. For the first time, the upcoming debate within the Security Council will provide the opportunity for a joint and integrated discussion on piracy in both East and West Africa. Hopefully, it will also be capable to provide for an opportunity to confront these differing realities, identify their root causes and peculiarities and, most importantly, share the relevant lessons learned on the ground so far. We will closely follow the debate and report on its achievements, or failures, as soon as possible.

Piracy Takes Center Stage at UN Security Council

Indian ambassador to the UN Hardeep Singh Puri, who assumed the month-long presidency of the UN Security Council, interacts with the media after convening an emergency meeting on Syria, in New York. Source: PTI Photo

As noted by Christine, India has assumed the month-long presidency of the UN Security Council and has brought piracy to the center of the debate. As the Security Council Report points out this is the first time that piracy has been addressed as a thematic issue as opposed to in a state or regional discussion.

Key Issues

A key issue for the Council is how to strengthen the international response to piracy as a global threat to international peace and security.

Another issue is what lessons can be learned from the experiences gained so far at the regional level that may be applied universally.  These experiences cover areas such as effective coordination and cooperation mechanisms, preventive measures taken by the shipping industry (which include the use of privately contracted armed security personnel on ships), strengthening legal frameworks to ensure accountability for acts of piracy, capacity-building for states in the affected regions and addressing the root causes of piracy. A related issue is the difference across regions in the way pirates operate and the capacity of regional states to take effective action.

There also seems to be growing recognition of the human cost of piracy as an issue deserving more attention, including how to ensure assistance to hostages and their families.

Options

The main option for the Council is to adopt a presidential statement that would call for strengthened international action against piracy based on some of the experiences already gained and mechanisms in place. Such a statement could also ask the Secretary-General for a report on piracy at the global level and recommendations for further action.

The framework adopted by the Security Council could form the basis for the further solidification of customary international law. While the Security Council has issued numerous resolutions regarding piracy off the coast of Somalia, it has been careful to disclaim any opinio juris in creating precedents that might contradict UNCLOS. A further strengthening of the UNCLOS framework, in addition to an elucidation of areas of ambiguity in the treaty would be welcome in light of continued acts of piracy off the coast of Somalia, in the Gulf of Guinea, in the Malacca Straight, and, potentially, in new areas where conditions are ripe for such criminality.