Hostages On Sea
As I write this, family members and supporters of the six Indian sailors onboard MV Suez, an Egyptian ship, captured by Somali pirates in August 2010, remain uncertain. With the deadline to pay the ransom of four million US dollars expiring on March 9 and the pleas of the hostages to the government falling on deaf ears so far, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party has made it a big issue. It walked out of the Lok Sabha on March 9 in protest against the government’s failure to secure the release of the captive sailors. Will the government pay the ransom for their freedom? Well, that is what the family members of the hostages and opposition leader Sushma Swaraj suggest, given the history of the similar incidents in recent years. Knowledgeable sources reveal that in almost all the cases involving Indian hostages in the sea, money has been paid for their safe releases either by the family members or by the ship owners. In fact, western media reports say that the French and the British have rescued their citizens from MV Suez, apparently by giving ransoms.
Coincidentally, on March 9, another batch of 11 Indians working for the United Arab Emirate-registered ship MV Rak Afrikana, hijacked by the Somali pirates in April 2010, was freed and shifted to a nearby Spanish naval ship. Afrikana is said to be in bad shape, having developed technical problems and running short of water and diesel. Officials were tight-lipped on what happened behind the release of Africana, leading to speculations that “money for release” was the chosen path. If true, it exposes once again India’s weak-kneed approach while dealing with hostages.
It may be noted here that pirates are a real nightmare for ships today. A global maritime watchdog, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), says that pirates captured a record-setting 1,181 hostages in 2010 as ship hijackings in waters off Somalia escalated. Pirates seized 53 vessels worldwide last year. All but four of them were off the coast of Somalia. The Kuala Lumpur-based watchdog’s director, Pottengal Mukundan, says that the numbers of hostages and vessels taken were the highest since the IBM began monitoring attacks in 1991. Eight crew members were killed in the attacks. The IBM in its annual report says that the Somali attacks accounted for 1,016 hostages held for ransom. The pirates still had 28 vessels and 638 captives at the end of 2010.
The IMB report makes it clear that hijackings off the coast of Somalia accounted for 92 per cent of all ship seizures last year with 49 vessels hijacked and 1,016 crew members taken hostage. A total of 28 vessels and 638 hostages were still being held for ransom by Somali pirates as of December 31, 2010. As regards the Indian hostages, about 495 Indian sailors were held hostage by the Somali pirates in last four years. Barring 64, all of them were released safely last year. Of the 64 sailors, 11 are crew members of Rak Afrikana, set free just now. Other Indians still captive are on MV Iceberg-I, MV Suez, MV Asphalt Venture, MV Savina Caylyn, and MV Sinin. According to Indian Shipping Ministry, MV Savina Caylyn and MV Sinin have 26 Indians as crew members—they were hijacked this year, in January and February respectively.
The second important point to note is that pirates are using more and more sea-jacked vessels to capture other vessels, using the crews as human shield. In fact, they are doing a roaring business as the shipping insurance business is booming all over the world. No wonder why hijackings do not necessarily cause any distress to the ship owners as in most cases the ransoms paid are being paid by the insurance companies. In other words, there is incentive for both—the pirates and insurance companies, since the latter have increased the premiums of the ships manifold over the years. But it is bad news for the consumers and tax payers since ultimately the ship owners pass the buck to them.
Currently, the shipping industry is largely dominated by the European countries in terms of vessel ownership. The workforce is largely from Asian developing countries. The nationalities of the crew held hostage by Somalia pirates provide an insight into this aspect. These include: Bulgaria, Myanmar, Philippines, Ghana, Greece, India, South Korea, Pakistan, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Turkey and Ukraine. Interestingly, and this is the third important point, it is worth noting that no Indian ship has been hijacked in last four years, although seven had come under attack by the pirates of the Somalia coast between 2007 and 2011. And that makes the rescue of the hostages very difficult. Because, it is the primary responsibility of the ship owner, and in this case he or she is a foreigner, and the secondary responsibility of the country whose flag flies on the top of the ship (the country of the ship owner in most of the cases) to deal with the hijackers. Thus, the Indian government is not directly in picture; its responsibility is that of a moral one. And on this, as External Affairs Minister SM Krishna has pointed out, the government has not been lacking. It has consistently talked with the countries concerned—Egypt and the UAE in the cases of MV Suez and Rak Afrikana respectively.
But then, many security experts are of the opinion that India should not go by technicalities since the hostages happen to be Indians. Their argument is that since the government has the fundamental responsibility of securing the lives and properties of all its citizens, irrespective of their locations, the Indian Navy, one of the most powerful ones in the world, can always rescue the hostages by resorting to force with the pirates. This is particularly so when Somalia does not have a government for years. Even otherwise, since most of the ships are hijacked in international water, there will be no violation of international law if the Indian Navy applies force for rescuing Indian citizens. It is a question of using your power, so the argument runs. After all, if American Special Forces could attack vehicles in Somalia carrying members of al-Qaida’s Somalia and Kenya branch on September 14, 2009, as retaliation to the al-Qaida’s attacks on US embassy in Kenya in 1998, India can likewise use force against the Somalian pirates. And it is all the more so when the world does not have any effective anti-piracy laws.
I think there are enough merits in the above argument. If you are aspiring to be a global power then behave as a global power. We must enhance the anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden region. Simultaneously, we should work with the like-minded Gulf States to evolve a regional cooperative mechanism, a pattern that should also be replicated with the littoral countries in South East Asia.
As it is, a rising India has vital stakes in the Indian Ocean, particularly in the stretch between the Gulf of Aden and the Strait of Malacca. Because, nearly 95 per cent of India’s trade by volume and 77 per cent by value are seaborne. Forty per cent of the seaborne trade transits through the Strait of Malacca and about 50 per cent through the Gulf of Aden region. Further, India has the seventeenth largest merchant fleet in the world, providing over 7 per cent of the manpower (approximately 100,000 seafarers) to the global shipping industry. Therefore, we can no longer remain passive in the face of the threats to our shipping fleet, seaborne trade and seafarers.
By Prakash Nanda