Friday, September 30, 2011

Freight Shippers Launch Response to Piracy - Concerted Effort to Support Families as Problems Worsen

WARNING - Links in this story contain disturbing images
Shipping News Feature

UK-SOMALIA-WARNING – Links in this story contain disturbing images! On the day designated by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) as ‘World Maritime Day’ the entire ocean freight world was represented at the London launch of an across the board programme to pursue an effective humanitarian response to maritime piracy. With the theft of vessels and the abduction of their crews by pirates worsening year on year, this is the first time that the industry has produced a truly coordinated response aimed at dealing with the tragic consequences of this foul crime.

It was encouraging to see a gathering which included maritime unions, ship owners and operators, marine insurance groups and religious and seafarer’s charitable organisations answering questions alongside NATO and IMO representatives. The Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Programme (MPHRP) is designed to assist seafarers and their families cope with the trauma caused by torture and abuse at the hands of pirates during and following captivity.

Historically many companies who have been the victims of piracy have advised the families of abducted crews not to speak to anyone regarding their ordeal. Whilst this has usually been due to a natural reticence on the part of organisations which were negotiating ransom payments plus fear of harassment by media and the like, this has left many people with no support whatsoever for the consequences of an extremely traumatic experience.

Although the session was principally aimed at promoting this most worthwhile of causes the event also gave the assembled company the opportunity to cross question officials about security matters in waters off the coast of Somalia, the main problem area. Having expressed ‘absolute’ satisfaction with the Rules of Engagement applicable to naval forces in the region a question from the Handy Shipping Guide to Rear Admiral Ort, Chief of Staff at NATO HQ Northwood prompted a discussion of the lack of response when captured suspects were freed without trial, despite strong evidence against them.

Rear Admiral Ort indicated that the threat of trial in the West was not considered punitive by many pirates who were used to living in poor conditions but Giles Noakes, Chief Maritime Security Officer at the Baltic and International Maritime Council (BIMCO), which represents ship-owners controlling around 65 percent of the world’s tonnage, pointed out that the international naval forces around Somalia had arrested and freed without charge, over 1500 suspected pirates, some of them two or even three times, and indicated that these crime hardened, experienced hijackers would be better off removed from the scene altogether rather than being left to continue to plunder and further educate a new generation of criminals.

The principal purpose of the day was however to promote the MPHRP, a programme funded by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) Seafarers Trust charity together with the TK Foundation and the opening speech by Chairman Peter Swift ran through the horrendous costs, both financial but primarily in human terms, which piracy accounts for.

Peter Swift, a former Managing Director of INTERTANKO, which represents around 80% of world’s bulk freight and oil fleets, revealed the estimated cost of piracy last year to be $12 billion with four thousand seafaring hostages taken in the past five years and the rates of abduction rising every year. In 2011 alone there have been 546 kidnappings at sea, 400 in the Somali region and currently 277 souls remain in enforced captivity in the area, either aboard ships where conditions swiftly become abysmal with the carcasses of dead goats slaughtered for food left to rot on deck in the sun for months, or, in a new development, ashore where they are moved through the bush by their captors, half starved and with only filthy water to drink.

Anyone who doubts the conditions prisoners are kept under can hear the crew of the MV Leopard (taken early in the year) speak for themselves pleading for their rescue HERE but please be warned some scenes are extremely distressing. In a second video HERE (again with distressing scenes) the Captain explains why the vessel was abandoned (as pointed out in our story in January) and the consequences for his crew.

The most poignant note struck during the MPHRP inaugural event was a statement given by an Indian seaman present after he was asked to describe his period of captivity. He said:

“I was 2nd Engineer on a chemical carrier when she was seized. Treatment at first was OK but conditions deteriorated and you cannot imagine the mental and physical torture. We were suspected of hiding communications equipment and I was tied up on deck and beaten so badly I could not use my arm for a month. One tiny thing wrong on the ship, even a light on the controls or any fault with the machinery and I was beaten as they said I was to blame being an engineer.

“The Captain and the Chief Engineer were blamed for non payment of the ransom so they locked them tied up in the freezer at -18 °C. One of the crew said he would help the pirates and showed them where other vessels were likely to be. Then we were blamed for the successes of the Indian Navy, when the pirates heard that one pirate lost his leg in a fight with the Indian forces they made death threats and we suffered extra tortures. They put a gun to the head of the Chief Engineer and fired it next to his ear.

“I was told to produce oil for the engines but we had none so they told me to make it from the castor oil we had as cargo. When I explained ‘I am not a scientist’ they beat me. You cannot imagine the situation of the crew and their families. I cannot return to sea I am too frightened.”

In a speech given by Roy Paul, MPHRP Manager, he pointed out that due to the romanticising of figures like the factual Captain Kidd and the fictional Jack Sparrow most people had a very wrong picture of pirates in their minds. He stressed that the first advice for any captives was to offer no resistance whatsoever to their captors. The Somalis’ now blame toxic waste released after the 2004 Tsunami for the degradation of their fishing industry and many justify their actions as pirates this way.

The use of GPRS has made the task of ensuring vessels were on the correct heading much simpler for abductors who were not necessarily skilled navigators and although much has been done to ‘harden’ vessels against attacks more captures were inevitable.

Based on this fact a formidable panel of experts were gathered to prepare the programme including Dr Alistair Hull and Dr Marion Gibson whose extensive knowledge within the maritime industry and with welfare organisations had exposed her to the effects of a wide range of traumatic scenarios, including the aftermath of terrorism.

Dr Gibson reiterated that the abducted and their families had outstanding pastoral and practical needs which were not being fully addressed and that the MPHRP was aimed at resolving these. The programme had been designed, not from an academic but a practical point of view and that extensive research had been undertaken in which past victims and their families were asked questions such as: What had been most helpful and helped you to cope? What was the worst aspect? And what would have made your situation easier?

The research has led to the production of a series of ‘Good Practice Guides’ for use by shipping companies and recruitment and staffing agencies to give advice on the best way to cope with an incident of piracy. It must be stressed that these guides, like the Best Management Practices, are far more valuable when studied and put in place before involvement in an incident. Many shipping companies suffer from the ‘Couldn’t happen to me’ outlook and have no idea how to cope when a situation arises.

The full range of guides will be released in November and more information can be obtained from the MPHRP website HERE.

Photo:- Rear Admiral Ord with Dr Marion Gibson and Peter Swift (standing) at the MPHRP launch at the London Museum of Docklands yesterday.