The rumors concerning the demise of maritime piracy back in the 19th century were a tad premature. The scourge has so resurged that the International Maritime Board (IMB), founded by the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) in 1981, is forced to broadcast daily piracy reports to all shipping companies by satellite from its Kuala Lumpur Piracy Reporting Center, established in 1992 and partly funded by maritime insurers. The reports carry this alarming disclaimer:
"For statistical purposes, the IMB defines piracy and armed robbery as: An act of boarding or attempting to board any ship with the apparent intent to commit theft or any other crime and with the apparent intent or capability to use force in the furtherance of that act. This definition thus covers actual or attempted attacks whether the ship is berthed, at anchor or at sea. Petty thefts are excluded, unless the thieves are armed."
The 1994 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea defines piracy as "any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed by individuals (borne aboard a pirate vessel) for private ends against a private ship or aircraft (the victim vessel)." When no "pirate vessel" is involved - for instance, when criminals embark on a ship and capture it - the legal term is hijacking.
On July 8, seven pirates, armed with long knives attacked an officer of a cargo ship berthed in Chittagong port in Bangladesh, snatched his gold chain and watch and dislocated his arm. This was the third such attack since the ship dropped anchor in this minacious port.
Three days earlier, in Indonesia, similarly-armed pirates escaped with the crew's valuables, having tied the hands of the duty officer. Pirates in small boats stole anodes from the stern of a bulk carrier in Bangladesh. Others, in Indonesia, absconded with a life raft.
The pirates of Guyana are either unlucky or untrained. They were consistently scared off by flares hurled at them and alarms set by vigilant hands on deck. A Colombian band, riding a high speed boat, attempted to board a container ship. Warring parties in Somalia hijacked yet another ship last month.
A particularly egregious case - and signs of growing sophistication and coordinated action - is described in the July 1-8 report of the IMB:
"Six armed pirates boarded a chemical tanker from a small boat and stole ship's stores. Another group of pirates broke in to engine room and stole spare parts. Thefts took place in spite of the ship engaging three shore security watchmen." Piracy incidents have been reported in India, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, Nigeria, Brazil, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela.
According to the ICC Year 2001 Piracy Report, more than 330 attacks on seafaring vessels were reported last year - down by a quarter compared to 2000 but 10 percent higher than 1999 and four times the 1991 figure. Piracy rose 40 percent between 1998 and 1999 alone.
Sixteen ships - double the number in 2000 - were captured and taken over. Eighty seven attacks were reported during the first quarter of this year - up from 68 in the corresponding period last year. Seven of these were hijackings - compared to only 1 in the first quarter of 2001. Nine of every 10 hijacked ships are ultimately recovered, often with the help of the IMB.
Many masters and shipowners do not report piracy for fear of delays due to protracted investigations, increased insurance premiums, bad publicity, and stifling red tape. The number of unreported attacks in 1999 was estimated by the World Maritime Piracy Report to be 130.
According to "The Economist", the IMO believes that half of all incidents remain untold. Still, increased patrols and international collaboration among law enforcement agencies dented the clear upward trend in maritime crime - even in the piracy capital, Indonesia.
The number of incidents in the pirate-infested Malacca Straits dropped from 75 to 17 last year - though the number of crew "kidnap and ransom" operations, especially in Aceh, has increased. Owners usually pay the "reasonable" amounts demanded - c. $100,000 per ship. Contrary to folklore, most ships are attacked while at anchor.
Twenty one people, including passengers, were killed last year - and 210 taken hostage. Assaults involving guns were up 50 percent to 73 - those involving mere knives down by a quarter to 105. Piracy seems to ebb and flow with the business cycles of the host economies. The Asian crisis, triggered by the freefall of the Thai baht, gave a boost to East Asian maritime robbers. So did the debt crises of Latin America a decade earlier. Drug transporters - armed with light aircraft and high speed motorboats - sometimes double as pirates during the dry season of crop growth.
Pirates endanger ship and crew. But they often cause collateral damage as well. Pirates have been known to dump noxious cargo into the sea, or tie up the crew and let an oil tanker steam ahead, its navigational aides smashed, or tamper with substances dangerous to themselves and to others, or cast crew and passengers adrift in tiny rafts with little food and water.
Many shipowners resorted to installing on-board satellite tracking systems, such as Shiploc, and aircraft-like "black boxes". A bulletproof life vest, replete with an integral jagged edged knife, was on display in the millennium exhibition at the Millennium Dome two years ago. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is considering to compel shipowners to tag their vessels with visibly embossed numbers in compliance with the Safety of Life at Sea Convention.
In 54 maritime administrations surveyed last year by the Seafarers' International Research Centre, Cardiff University in Wales, more than 12,000 cases of forged certificates of competency were unearthed.
Many issuing authorities are either careless or venal or both. The IMB recently accused the Coast Guard Office of Puerto Rico for issuing 500 such "suspicious" certificates. The Chinese customs and navy - especially along the southern coast - have often been accused of working hand in glove with pirates.
False documents are an integral - and crucial - part of maritime piracy. The IMB says:
"Many of the phantom ships that set off to sea with a cargo and then disappear are sailed by crewmen with false passports and competency certificates. They usually escape detection by the port authorities. In a recent case of a vessel located and arrested in South-East Asia further to IMB investigations, it has emerged that all the senior officers had false passports. The ship's registry documents were also false."
As documents go electronic and integrated in proprietary or common cargo tracking systems, such forgery will wane. Bolero - an international digital bill of lading ledger - is backed by the European Union, banks, shipping and insurance companies. The IMO is a proponent of a technology to apply encrypted "digital signatures" to electronic bills of lading. Still, the industry is highly fragmented and many ships and ports don't even possess rudimentary information technology.
The protection afforded by the likes of Bolero is at least a decade away.
Pirates sometimes work hand in hand with conspiring crew members (or, less often, stowaways). In many countries - in East Asia, Latin America, and Africa - Coast Guard operatives, corrupt drug agents, and other law enforcement officials, moonlight as pirates. Renegade members of British trained Indonesian anti-piracy squads are still roaming the Malacca Straits.
Pirates also enjoy the support of an insidious and vast network of suborned judges and bureaucrats. Local villagers along the coasts of Indonesia and Malaysia - and Africa - welcome pirate business and provide the perpetrators with food and shelter.
Moreover, large tankers, container ships, and cargo vessels are largely computerized and their crew members few. The value of an average vessel's freight has increased dramatically with improvements in container and oil storage technologies. "Flag of convenience" registration has assumed monstrous proportions, allowing ship owners and managers to conceal their identity effectively. Belize, Honduras, and Panama are the most notorious, no questions asked, havens.
Piracy has matured into a branch of organized crime. Hijacking requires money, equipment, weapons, planning, experience and contacts with corrupt officials. The loot per vessel ranges from $8 million to $200 million.
Pottengal Mukundan, Director of ICC's Commercial Crime Services states, in a recent IMB press release:
"(Piracy) typically involves a mother ship from which to launch the attacks, a supply of automatic weapons, false identity papers for the crew and vessel, fake cargo documents, and a broker network to sell the stolen goods illegally. Individual pirates don't have these resources. Hijackings are the work of organized crime rings."
The IMB describes the aftermath of a typical hijacking:
"The Global Mars has probably been given a new name and repainted. Armed with false registration papers and bills of lading, the pirates - or more likely the mafia bosses pulling the strings - will then try to dispose of their booty. The vessel has probably put in to a port where the false identity of vessel and cargo may escape detection. Even when identified, the gangs have been known to bribe local officials to allow them to sell the cargo and leave the port."
Such a ship is often "recycled" a few times. It earns its operators an average of $40-50 million per "cycle", according to "The Economist". The pirates contract with sellers or shipping agents to load it with a legitimate consignment of goods or commodities. The sellers and agents are unaware of the true identity of the ship, or of its unsavory "owners/managers".
The pirates invariably produce an authentic vessel registration certificate that they acquired from crooked officials - and provide the sellers or agents with a bill of lading. The payload is then sold to networks of traders in stolen merchandise or to gullible buyers in a different port of destination - and the ship is ready for yet another round.
This January, the Indonesian Navy has permanently stationed six battleships in the Malacca Straits, three of them off the coast of the secessionist region of Aceh. A further 20-30 ships and 10 aircraft conduct daily patrols of the treacherous traffic lane. Some 200-600 ships cross the Straits daily. A mere 50 ships or so are boarded and searched every month.
The Greek government has gunboats patrolling the 2 miles wide Corfu Channel, where yachts frequently fall prey to Albanian pirates. Brazil has imposed an unpopular anti-piracy inspection fee on berthing vessels and used the proceeds to finance a SWAT team to protect ships and their crews while in port. Both India and Thailand have similar units.
International cooperation is also on the rise. About one third of the world's shipping traffic goes through the South China Sea. A conference convened by Japan in March 2000 - Japanese vessels have become favored targets of piracy in the last few years - pushed for the ratification of the International Maritime Organisation's (IMO) 1988 Rome Convention on the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation by Asian and ASEAN countries.
The Convention makes piracy an extraterritorial crime and, thus, removes the thorny issue of jurisdiction in cases of piracy carried in another country's territorial waters or out on the high seas. The Comite Maritime International - the umbrella organization of national maritime law associations - promulgated a model anti-piracy law last year.
Though it rejected Japan's offer for collaboration, in a sharp reversal of its previous policy, China started handing down death sentences against murderous pirates. The 13 marauders who seized the Cheung Son and massacred its 23 Chinese sailors were executed two years ago in the southern city of Shanwei. Another 25 people received long prison sentences. The - declared - booty amounted to a mere $300,000.
India and Iran - two emerging "pirates safe harbor" destinations - have also tightened up sentencing and port inspections. In the Alondra Rainbow hijacking, the Indian Navy captured the Indonesian culprits in a cinematic chase off Goa. They were later sentenced severely under both the Indian Penal Code and international law. Even the junta in Myanmar has taken tentative steps against compatriots with piratical predilections.
Law enforcement does not tolerate a vacuum. "The Economist" reports about two private military companies - Marine Risk Management and Satellite Protection Services (SPS) - which deploy airborne mercenaries to deal with piracy. SPS has even suggested to station 2500 former Dutch marines in Subic Bay in the Philippines - for a mere $2500 per day per combatant.
Shipowners are desperate. Quoted by "The Economist", they "suggest that the region’s governments negotiate the right for navies to chase pirates across national boundaries: the so-called “right of hot pursuit”. So far, only Singapore and Indonesia have negotiated limited rights. Some suggest that the American navy should be invited into territorial waters to combat piracy, a “live” exercise it might relish. At the very least, countries such as Indonesia should advertise which bits of their territorial waters at any time are patrolled and safe from pirates. No countries currently do this."