In one taunt phrase British journalist Colin Freeman reminded the world of the fate of the crew of the Iceberg 1 held by Somali pirates on board their own ship in what must now be conditions of the utmost squalor. Freeman has a good sense of what these men are going through having been held by Somalis as a hostage himself.
Two amongst the crew have died: one by taking his own life and the other from unknown causes. For their part their captors must be desperate to be rid of them. While accounts of torture and mistreatment of hostage by the pirates may have been somewhat exaggerated in the past, incidents of physical and mental abuse for reasons ranging from ignorance of ship workings to putting pressure on families and owners to force larger or more speedy payment of ransom have occurred and must be a daily concern for these men. The IMB and the Oceans Beyond Piracy project have jointly produced an excellent new report that records these incidents in detail.
Now we learn that the stakes have just be raised: a seaman on board a second ship – the MV Orna which has been held for almost as long – has reportedly been killed (and another wounded) in an attempt to force its owners in the UAE to pay the ransom demanded.
Freeman reports that some members of the shipping community feel the industry has failed the crew of the Iceberg 1. This concern will presumably increase significantly if the report about the possible murder on board the Orna is confirmed.
Will it, however, alter the views of those in government concerned with Somali piracy and who advocate that the payment of ransom should be made illegal? This possible policy change has had little public airing. Even though payments are made by ship-owners not insurers, the proposal was repudiated by the insurance industry earlier this year. It is morally repugnant because – in the absence of a coherent political, economic and security policy that addresses the causes as well as the consequences of Somali piracy – insurance is the only way crews can be freed. Although the precise reasons why ransoms have not been paid in either of these cases are unknown the general rule is: No insurance – no freedom. Regardless of this the proposal to make ransom payments illegal continues to find favor in Washington.
Payment of ransom other than in terrorist cases is not illegal under UK law. Despite this the UK government established a task force with other CGPSC members and industry representatives to consider options to prevent ship-owners paying ransoms or to help them avoid paying them, to develop alternative strategies, and to reduce the size and frequency of payments if all else fails. Three meeting have been agreed, the first being held in London on May 30th, 2012. This initiative is being pursued despite repeated warnings from the insurance and ship-owning communities that while they dislike paying ransom as much as anyone this remains the only way of freeing hostages in the absence of effective state action. Industry sources have suggested that the fact that it exists at all has already had an effect on the payment process; despite denials to the contrary it is suspected that the US Treasury has taken steps to restrict the supply of dollars to UK banks, although all this might achieve is to drive the locus of ransom payments out of London to less regulated, and less financially transparent, centers in Asia.
It is also noticeable that the deliberations of the ransom task force appear to have taken little account of the effects that making ransom payments illegal might have on hostage problems elsewhere. The task force is due to issue a report later this year. Let us hope it pays more attention to the fate of the Iceberg 1’s sailors and seaman reportedly murdered on board the Orna than wishful-thinking in the corridors of power.
Image source: EU NAVFOR