Burney points

Beyond the Pakistani initiatives in releasing MV Suez

Other than the fact that six of its 22 sailors were Indian nationals, the MV Suez, an Egyptian-owned, Panamanian-flagged ship, was more about Pakistan.

It was captained by a Pakistani national and was on a voyage from Karachi to the Eritrean port of Massawa in July-August 2010, when it was hijacked by Somalian pirates in the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC), off the Horn of Africa. It sent distress signals to the EU Naval Force (EU NAVFORCE) patrolling the region but was seized before naval helicopters could arrive. The ship, cargo and crew have been held for ransom since then.

Its release was also, on the face of it, a largely Pakistani affair. Negotiations between the ship’s Egyptian owners and the pirates were deadlocked until February 2011, when Ansar Burney, a prominent Pakistani human rights activist, entered the scene. A ransom was arranged through his good offices and paid sometime in late May. As is usual with such arrangements, the source of the funds, its final recipients and suchlike are unclear. Somalia’s transitional federal government, which is against ransom payments, might even have apprehended the individuals and cash (which may be between $2 million to $4 million) in Mogadishu on May 25th. Eventually though, the pirates released the ship and its crew.

But the drama didn’t end there. Pirates attacked it again after it was released, and a Pakistani naval ship, Babur, which happened to be in the vicinity as part of the international coalition task force (CTF-151) came to its assistance and chased the pirates away. The Pakistani initiatives received well-deserved applause all around, including in the Indian media. After all, Pakistani individuals and the Pakistani navy had helped secure the return of Indian sailors when the Indian government, on the face of it, didn’t.

Indeed, the episode turns a little bizarre thereafter. MV Suez‘s crew claims they called an Indian naval ship, the Godavari, for assistance, but it didn’t respond. According to the Indian Navy, Godavari diverted course from the two ships it was escorting and tried to contact the Suez, failed, and returned to its original course. The Pakistani authorities now charge that INS Godavari “hampered humanitarian operations”, violated international codes of conduct and brushed against PNS Babur. Whoa!

Update: The Indian Navy has dismissed Pakistan’s allegations. India’s foreign ministry spokesman tweeted that India had summoned the Pakistani naval adviser in New Delhi yesterday to register serious concerns on PNS Babur‘s risky manoeuvres and that it had lodged a protest with the Pakistani government today. Also, MV Suez ran out of fuel and is stranded off Oman. 18th June, 1945 IST

Now it is extremely unlikely that the Godavari‘s captain would deliberately engage in such behaviour. It won’t be difficult to establish facts of the case, as video footage is likely to be available. The Pakistani navy is under a cloud at this moment, and the officers of PNS Babur might have resented the presence—of all ships, an Indian one—at their moment of glory. Interestingly, MV Suez‘s captain suggested that even PNS Babur was attacked by pirates, which was denied by the Pakistani navy chief.

The media coverage does not emphasise the reality that the high seas are global commons. The world’s navies on anti-piracy operations are securing the world’s shipping, providing international public goods. This is, of course, interpreted selectively, but by and large, it is not uncommon for one country’s naval ship to assist ships of other countries. In any case, international shipping is a truly international enterprise: with owners, flags, crews and cargos belonging to different countries. One’s own security lies in everyone’s security. So it is that as of November 2010, more than 1037 foreign-flagged ships benefited from the Indian Navy’s protection, compared to only 144 Indian-flagged ones. You can be sure that most of those ships, Indian or foreign, had some crew members who were Indian nationals.

The Indian government was in a bind because it could neither pay out ransoms itself nor condone the payment of ransom by others. It therefore couldn’t satisfy the relatives of the hostages. This is understandable. What is not understandable, and certainly not excusable, is its inability to manage the hostage crisis competently. The Ministry of External Affairs explained the limits of its mandate, passing the buck to the Director General of Shipping. The Ministry of Shipping had little to offer. The Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs made promises it was unlikely to be able to keep. The lack of purposefulness is palpable even if the Indian Navy continues to discharge its duties admirably.

The Cabinet Committee on Security must create a Maritime Security Management Task Force, headed by a serving or retired officer with expertise in maritime security and intelligence. Reporting to the National Security Advisor, it must have senior officers from the ministries of external affairs, defence, shipping, commerce, the cabinet secretariat, in addition to the three armed services. The buck on piracy matters should stop there.

Update: Pakistan’s Express Tribune, without quoting sources says “India, which was due to contribute $500,000 as part of its share of the ransom fee, never turned up with its promised amount, almost putting the lives of 22 sailors in jeopardy.” (19th July)

When India used to secure Somalia’s Red Sea coast

And why it must do so again

The pirates of Puntland made the strategic mistake of becoming too successful. And they also ran out of luck, when among the vessels they hijacked was one carrying a huge arms shipment, and another something mysteriously important. And suddenly, the world’s navies with the capability to get there—save India’s—decided that it was time to sail to go pirate hunting (or, at the very least, pirate watching) in the Red Sea. The US navy is already there. The Russian navy is on its way (and may well demonstrate some muscle in the days ahead). Even the European Union “is setting up an anti-piracy taskforce to help protect the lawless sea lanes off east Africa.”

Now, piracy off Somalia presents both threat to humanitarian relief operations, international security and to international commerce. And both the UN security council and the president of Somalia have called for the international community to take an interest in patrolling the region. And as Seth Weinberger writes, suo motu action against pirates has legal sanction under international law.

Piracy is one of the clearest examples of jus cogens, a preemptory norm that creates a crime for which there is no possible justification and for which there is universal jurisdiction. Thus, anyone who wishes to act against the pirates is legally allowed to do so. However, that creates a problem—in the absence of a specific jurisdiction, no one has the responsibility or strong incentive to act (why should one state bear the cost of enforcement when the cost of piracy falls on many?). [Security Dilemmas]

The question, though, is how long these navies will stay in the region. While the United States and its allies have the logistics and support infrastructure in the region, other naval forces will have to work out arrangements if they are to maintain forces for an extended period of time.

Amid all this, the Indian government is demonstrating an inexplicable reluctance to dispatch the Indian navy to the waters off Somalia. Not only does this position disregard the threat to India’s interests in the region, it also ignores the fact that a century ago, it was the (British) Indian navy that used to secure the Red Sea.

During the prime mininstership of William Gladstone in the 1880s, it was decided that the Indian government should be responsible for administering the Somaliland protectorate because the Somali coast’s strategic location on the Gulf of Aden was important to India. Customs taxes helped pay for India’s patrol of Somalia’s Red Sea Coast. [David D Laitin/LOC]

According to retired Vice Admiral Arun Kumar Singh, “it is almost impossible, and prohibitively expensive, for the Indian Navy to send two warships and a tanker, some 2,000 nm from our west coast, and keep them on patrol for 365 days a year in the “safety corridor”. He argues that apart from placing armed “Sea Marshalls” on board commercial ships passing through the region, the Indian navy should partner those of the west and Russia to patrol the region.

The long-term solution, of course, lies on land: extricating Somalia from its civil war, and stabilising the entire Horn of Africa. That’s a tall order. In the meantime, it is necessary to contain the Somali pirates. There is a clear case to deploy the Indian Navy in the Red Sea off the coast of Somalia, with rules of engagement that include hot pursuit. Indeed, there is a clear case to task the marine commandos with hostage-rescue missions where Indian ships and nationals are taken hostage.

Related Links: On INI, Pragmatic Euphony has more. Information Dissemination & Eagle1 are two excellent blogs covering maritime security issues. A Chatham House paper by Roger Middleton on the subject.