THE PIRATES OF TODAY: EQUAL OPPORTUNITY HOODLUMS
By Micah Halpern
Thursday May 13, 2010
Piracy, that blight on the open seas, must be eradicated.
The economic impact of the current spate of piracy launched out of Somalia is immense. After the ransoms are calculated, the insurance is totaled, defense and security measures are factored in, the cost of piracy probably tops $16 billion per year.
Sixteen billion is not that much relative to the $7.8 trillion dollars of yearly maritime commerce - but that sixteen billion dollar cost is not profit, it is cost that is all passed on to you and me, the consumer.
Other numbers are equally as staggering. There are only between 600 to 1,000 modern pirates making their living off the seas. That's all. The amount of ransom paid to these gun-toting, bad-guy, entrepreneurs in 2009 was put at only about $30 million. Ransom is the cheapest part of piracy, it is the other costs that add it all up.
Today's pirates are equal opportunity hoodlums. They do not care if they attack oil tankers or ships carrying children's toys, if the ships are British, American, Swiss or Syrian. They take over a ship and leave after their ransom has been paid. And a significant amount of the money they receive now fuels the economy of their motherland, Somalia.
Just this week a Greek ship was taken by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden. Twenty four hostages were taken, two of them Greek, the remaining Filipinos. The captured ship was carrying iron from the Ukraine to China making a stop in Singapore. The Gulf of Aden is the most troublesome spot on the seas for merchants, the most lucrative for pirates. It is where the vast number of piracies takes place.
The funnel between the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea is the Gulf of Aden. The Red Sea leads to the Suez Canal which opens into the Mediterranean Sea and from there to Europe.
The Gulf of Aden gets its name from the Yemenite port city of Aden situated at the mouth of the gulf. Yemen sits on the east side of the Gulf. On the west side of the Gulf is Somalia. Next to Somalia is Djibouti and then Eritrea. The Gulf of Eden turns into the Bab el Mandeb, or the Straits of Mandeb, as it narrows to an area only twenty miles wide. All shipping going from Asia to Europe must pass through the Gulf of Aden and the Mandeb Straits and make its way up into the Red Sea and the Suez Canal.
The ships sit there, caught in a massive traffic jam at sea, like the proverbial sitting ducks, all lined up and waiting to be picked off by pirates. The pirates make their way from the Gulf to the Straits and onto the ship of their choosing. When I say traffic jam, I mean traffic jam. The numbers are staggering. 15,000 - 20,000 ships pass through the narrow Straits of Mandeb each year. That means that, on average, the Straits accommodate 1,500 ships every month.
Is there no other alternative? For ships traveling from Asia to Europe there is. But time means money and shipping companies are willing to run the Gulf of Aden risk, hoping that some other ship will be boarded. They opt to take the shorter Straits of Mandeb route because it saves them days of travel over the longer, safer, trip around the Horn of Africa. The extra days it takes going around the Horn costs an extra $2 million per ship in fuel and an extra $100,000 in security fees. Every ship needs security teams whether it travels through the Horn of Africa or the Gulf of Aden. The money saved translates into cheaper goods and more efficient uses of energy, time and resources.
Pirates take advantage of their home field. They have no fear of capture and no fear of punishment even if captured. The laws of the seas are unequipped to deal with their crime, there is almost no way of prosecuting them. Ships may be owned by corporations but they fly "flags of convenience." That means they fly flags from Liberia, Panama and the Bahamas - countries that have no teeth, no legal standing to prosecute the pirates who board them and demand ransoms.
An entirely new approach to stopping piracy is needed. Aggressive naval and police tactics backed by special international courts that have the power to prosecute and convict is part of the answer. For the sake of the world's economy, for the sake of international justice countries must join together and invest the time, money and energy required to stem acts of piracy.
The world should not continue to support the pirates of Somalia. But we will, unless changes are made. Pirates have no incentive to change what they are doing. We must create that incentive.
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