By Dr Sofia Galani, Lecturer in Law (University of Bristol Law School).
In October 2016, Somali piracy made headlines again, and the release of a group of seafarers who had been in captivity for nearly five years, reminded the international community of the adverse impact piracy has had on seafarers.
Piracy had always been a major maritime security threat, but the first two decades of the 21st century were marred by an unprecedented scale of pirate attacks off the coasts of Somalia. Between 2010 and 2014, almost 9,688 seafarers were attacked by Somali pirates and 2,060 seafarers were taken hostage. The estimated cost of ransom payments for the vessels and crews seized during the period 2005-2014 was between US$340 million and US$435 million. Somali pirate attacks have significantly dropped over the last two years, but Somali piracy has not come to end yet. In 2015, five hijackings were reported in the Western Indian Ocean where a number of seafarers remained in captivity.
While these figures indicate the threats posed to international shipping and the economic cost of Somali piracy, they fail to highlight the significant human cost of piracy. Pirates operating in the Gulf of Aden adopted the ‘kidnap for ransom’ model. In other words, pirates in this region of the world hijack vessels with the sole purpose of ransoming the crews, and they do not hesitate to inflict severe pain in their hostages so long as these practices can secure the payment of their ransom. Over the years, the accounts of released hostages have disclosed the physical and psychological abuses they have been subjected to. The reports of physical abuses that hostages suffered included being punched, pushed, slapped, and burned by cigarettes, being tied up in the sun for hours, locked in freezers, and having fingernails pulled out with pliers. The accounts of the crew of the FV Naham 3, who were released last month after spending nearly five years in captivity, brought to the forefront the suffering of seafarers at the hands of pirates. The captain of FV Naham 3 was killed while trying to avoid the pirate attack and two crew members died of illness while in captivity. The rest of the crew survived on small amounts of water and food, while some of the crew members had to eat rats to survive.
In addition to the ordeal seafarers go through while in captivity, the long-term impact of hostage-taking on the victims should not be overlooked. Almost all seafarers who transited the Western Indian Ocean Region High Risk Area were attacked by pirates, or taken hostage suffer various forms of depression and post-trauma disorders. Seafarers who remained in captivity for prolonged periods of time also struggle to reintegrate. Mr Balbero, one of the seafarers of the FV Naham 3, told BBC that ‘I don’t know what is… outside of this world when this finish, so it’s very hard to start again.’ Other seafarers return to a new reality in which parents have died and marriages have been broken off. Relatives have also stated that seafarers are more aggressive, bad-tempered, suffer from memory loss or turn to alcohol once they are released and return to their families. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has acknowledged the immense human cost of piracy and introduced the Hostages Support Programme, which amongst others, aim to assist released hostages with repatriation to their home country and provide victim support to port release. Despite the efforts of the programme to assist released seafarers, there seems to be no collected evidence as to whether released seafarers receive any support once they return home. It should also not be overlooked that the majority of seafarers come from developing countries, where counselling services and support are not easily accessible, and most of the seafarers have to return to the sea as they have no other income or any other skills and training to pursue a different career.
The international community and the shipping industry have made significant efforts to fight against Somali piracy and have invested billions of pounds in naval patrols, self-protection measures and reforming the prisons and courts in the region so that pirates can be effectively arrested and prosecuted. These efforts should be praised and there is no doubt that the significant decline of pirate attacks is to be attributed to these efforts. Nevertheless, it is also hard to contest that none of the efforts focus on the protection of the human rights of seafarers who are the main targets of the kidnap for ransom model of piracy. The fact that seafarers are being captured and abused by non-state actors – the pirates – while pirates are being detained and prosecuted by states has shifted the international attention from the need to protect seafarers to the importance of safeguarding the human rights of pirates. There is no question that the international efforts to protect the human rights of pirates should be welcome. However, the human cost of piracy is nothing but violations of the human rights of seafarers, and it is regrettable that the protection of the human rights of seafarers has not achieved the prominence it deserves yet.
Successful boardings off the coasts of Somalia might have significantly reduced, but concerns have been expressed that once naval forces withdraw from the area Somali piracy might return. It is also questionable for how long the shipping industry, and particularly small shipping companies, will be able to cope with the high costs of self-protection measures that have fundamentally contributed to the fight against piracy. At the same time, the kidnap for ransom model of piracy has started being adopted by pirates in West Africa, where 44 hijackings were reported in 2015. Therefore, the threats posed to seafarers by pirates have not been eliminated yet, and it is time that the international counter-piracy efforts focused more on the protection of the human rights of seafarers. In any case, the victims of piracy, who have already paid the highest cost of piracy, should not be forgotten.