Modern day pirates on the high seas

Research focuses on alternatives to protect communities and seafarers

- January 10, 2012

Hugh Williamson (above left) meets with author Dan Conlin. (Danny Abriel photo)
Hugh Williamson (above left) meets with author Dan Conlin. (Danny Abriel photo)

From the Dalhousie Magazine Fall 2011

August 29, 2011 – two speedboats approach a chemical tanker steaming along the Gulf of Oman. A nervous captain raises the alarm. Just days before, pirates seized 
 another tanker anchored nearby, taking the ship and crew to join 18 other vessels awaiting ransom on the coast of Somalia. A long whistle blast sends crew rushing to a locked refuge aboard the ship, while an onboard security team readies weapons. Pirates come within 15 metres of the ship before warning shots cause them to break off and speed away. So ends one recent encounter in the escalating war with pirates.

Such attacks occur almost daily, since an explosion in piracy five years ago. According to the International Maritime Organization, there were 489 pirate attacks in 2010, the worst year on record with over 1,000 mariners languishing as hostages. 

Modern day piracy is the focus of a two-year research project by researchers at the Marine Affairs Program. Funding comes from the philanthropic TK Foundation, set up by the late J. Torben Karlshoej, founder of an international tanker firm.

Exploring piracy requires scholars who know law as well as those who know business and social injustice – issues that permeate modern and ancient buccaneering. Hugh Williamson (BSc’70, BEd’71, MBA’84, LLB’84) is a key player who draws on his 42 years with the Canadian Naval Reserve, including naval intelligence.

“Dalhousie is ideally set up for this sort of study,” says Mr. Williamson. “We have the connected areas of expertise for this complex problem.”

Most studies to date have been narrowly focused on one aspect; considering piracy as a naval, legal or political problem. Dalhousie’s interdisciplinary approach puts it ahead of the game. Research expertise on campus can be drawn together from marine affairs, international development, international trade and transport, foreign policy studies, marine and environmental law plus library and information studies.

The research will lead to policy alternatives for dealing with this crime being presented to agencies responsible for protecting both communities and seafarers.

A grim & cruel business

Most people in North America grew up with images of pirates as romantic rebels from long ago, epitomized in recent years by the Pirates of the Caribbean films.

Real piracy is not only a grim and cruel business, it is also something that has never gone away. The current wave of attacks in the Indian Ocean is only the most recent phase of one of the oldest known types of crime. Some of the first written accounts of seafaring in Egypt mention pirate attacks. Even the mighty Julius Caesar was held for ransom by pirates. It has flourished at different times and in different regions around the world.

Atlantic Canada had its own outburst of piracy in the early 1700s in a time known as the Golden Age of Piracy. For two decades pirates from the Caribbean such as the flashy Bartholomew Roberts or the psychotic Ned Low arrived every summer to plunder the region’s massive fishery, using it as a recruiting and supply centre. Increased naval patrols and special courts crushed the Golden Age of Piracy by the 1730s.

While piracy attacks became such a rarity in the North Atlantic that they passed into romantic myth, they have continued to be all-too-real elsewhere.

Among the regions plagued by pirate attacks in recent times is the Gulf of Thailand. A large wave of attacks began in the late 1970s as refugees fled Vietnam. Families carrying their lifesavings in small rundown boats attracted ruthless pirates. Mr. Williamson was working in the South Pacific at the time and remembers the grim toll.

“1982-83 was an especially bloody year. There were about 500 murders and sexual assaults,” he says.

Then in the early 1990s, pirate attacks soared in the Indonesian Straits of Malacca, a vital channel connecting Middle Eastern oil, Western markets and powerhouse Asian ports. The narrow channel proved ideal for pirate gangs. Attacks peaked at over 250 in 2000. In many of these ruthless and bloody attacks the entire crew was killed. Vessel and cargo would disappear, renamed through criminal middlemen and corrupt government officials. Attacks in the straits tapered off after 2004. The tsunami destroyed some pirate hideouts, Indonesia began better enforcement and China cracked down on gangs acting as middlemen.

A recent upheaval of pirate attacks in East Africa began when European fishermen aggressively moved into Somali waters following the government’s collapse, says Mr. Williamson. Angry Somalis formed an ad hoc coast guard based in Puntland to seize foreign fishing vessels and demand reparations. Nationalist seizures evolved into piracy as ransoms grew into the millions.

“These attacks are now very well organized and resemble a classic privateering model. Investors put up the money. Pirate war lords get boats and a crew, typically for $250,000. Investors get half the ransom, the pirate crew a third and the rest goes to the local community,” says Mr. Williamson.

This piracy at least has a low death rate as ransom money depends on the safety of the hostages, although Mr. Williamson worries that deaths will rise with the introduction of armed security guards. Armed guards are expensive and can cause their own problems when “shoot first” responses kill innocent people.

He points to the continuing vulnerability of Somalian refugees at sea. “No one is paying much attention to them because they are not part of international shipping,” he says.

A global issue

Finding solutions for the crime of piracy will remain as challenging in the modern era as it was in the past.

Part of this challenge is definition. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea deals with illegal attacks on the high seas, outside 12 mile territorial limits. Individual states have their own definitions. Other international conventions, such as the Suppression of Unlawful Acts, have broader definitions.

And while enforcement by international naval patrols have foiled many attacks and caught some pirates, legal difficulties have made it all but impossible to try and imprison pirates, he says. And, faced with naval patrols, Somali pirates have recently shifted their attacks far out into the Indian Ocean and north into the Red Sea.

The impact of piracy is global – eventually reaching North American consumers as shippers pass on the costs: security, higher insurance, ransoms and extra fuel for detours. And the wealth of consumer goods that flow into North America is dependent on the safety of the unsung seafaring labour force.

In some ways, Mr. Williamson notes, piracy is fundamentally a cost imposed by a desperate and hungry collapsed state.

“For the losses to shipping and the price of patrols, we could have fed and clothed every man, woman and child in Somalia,” he says.


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