“Take very strong action at sea and give help in Somalia itself”

Pottengal Mukundan

In this exclusive interview, Pottengal Mukundan appeals to the international community to step up and coordinate efforts against the ever-growing phenomenon of piracy in the waters off Somalia.

He outlines a strategy of much stronger action at sea – following the example of the Indian, US and other navies – combined with serious efforts to bring about civil order within Somalia itself. 

As Director of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) since 1996, Mukundan has long been a specialist on fighting piracy in its many forms around the world. He describes the special role the organisation plays in working to reduce attacks as follows: “Piracy is not a crime that automatically gets priority from the countries where it takes place. In most of these countries, there are problems of a lack of resources to deal with piracy. The fact that the IMB has a transparent set of data that is not subject to political manipulation but is freely available to the industry is important. It also acts as a catalyst for the law-enforcement agencies of these countries eventually to acquire their own resources.” 

Global: The IMB’s piracy reports for 2010 and the first quarter of 2011 noted that the incidence of piracy and armed robbery at sea is at a very high level, especially in the seas off Somalia. These pirates seem to be active over a wider area than ever before, using more vessels and employing more violence in their attacks. Do you think the international community is perhaps at last beginning to react with sufficient urgency to the magnitude of the problem, or is the problem likely to get worse?

Pottengal Mukundan: In the first five months of this year, Somali pirates accounted for 63.7 percent of worldwide attacks reported to the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre. In this period, there were 144 attacks, 21 vessels hijacked and seven crew [members] were killed. Reports of hostages being tortured and abused have emerged. The industry is doing what it can to protect vessels and crew given the legal restraints under which they operate. 

We are now reaching a critical point where it is necessary and urgent for governments to look again at this problem, and to ensure that their responses are commensurate with the scale of the problem.

In our view, it is vital that uniform and robust action is taken against the mother-ships from which the pirates operate. 

In recent cases, some naval vessels that catch the pirates are told by their governments to allow them to return without charge back to Somalia. Not all naval vessels in the area have the authority from their governments to board and inspect the suspected mother-ships. A mother-ship that is allowed to remain at sea unimpeded will result in the hijacking of more vessels. Pre-emptive action is necessary. The law allows it. What is missing in some cases is the will of the governments. UN Security Council Resolution 1950 calls for vessels, weapons and equipment used by pirates or suspected of being used by pirates to be seized and disposed of. 

It is essential that a clear, unambiguous message is sent to the pirates that if they engage in this activity they can expect severe consequences. This message is being undermined by those countries which do not give appropriate rules of engagement to their naval commanders operating in this area, who take the softer approach and send the pirates back to Somalia. As a result, these mixed messages simply encourage the criminals to extend the scope and violence of their attacks. 

On the other hand, the pirate bases are in an area of south-central Somalia, where there has been no foreign direct investment for decades, and where the conditions are dire. The drought there is killing the elderly and the very young. Because of these desperate conditions, it appears there is an almost unending flow of young men who are prepared to take the risk of going out to sea and being lost on pirate vessels. It is important that the UN and regional governments look to supporting urgently basic soft infrastructure, including health care. All efforts to protect ships at sea may be undermined if help is not given ashore where it is needed. 

There needs to be a combination of taking very strong action at sea and giving help in Somalia itself. We would like more of these things to be done, and urgently. There is at least a growing awareness that something needs to be done. We have ships going close to the Indian coast just to avoid the problem of Somali piracy in the Arabian Sea, and so the industry clearly recognises the problem. Every attempted attack is being reported to the IMB and, if there are naval vessels in the vicinity, we would hope they would investigate, board and neutralise it, remove the people on board and sink the ship. The navies of India, Indonesia, Russia and the US have been taking action against the pirates. 

What is it that these navies are doing that others are not? 

India has taken out three mother-ships this year and captured over 100 pirates who are standing trial in Mumbai. The Indian navy had high-level instructions from the government to take strong action against the mother-ships. It may be no coincidence that, as a result, since March 2011 there has been only one attempted attack (which was also foiled as a result of Indian naval intervention) against merchant vessels within 300 miles of the Indian coast. That kind of authority is needed. More navies should use UN resolutions as the basis for their rules of engagement. 

In recent months, strong action by the navies of the US, South Korea and Malaysia have frustrated attempts by the pirates to hijack vessels, and a number of pirates are now being held for trial in these countries.

What is your view on the problems of Kenya, which initially agreed to take more pirates for trial and imprisonment but seems to have already reached capacity in its jails? 

Kenya offered this facility two years ago but very soon they found their system was overloaded and they have stated that they simply cannot take any more. Seychelles also offered to take some but doesn’t have sufficient facilities. Recently, the Puntland district of Somalia has offered to imprison the pirates who are convicted in Seychelles. The ideal solution is that they should be dealt with at home in Somalia. It is the local community punishing its criminals under law which is the real deterrent. 

In terms of the situation within Somalia, what improvements have been and can be made that might eventually reduce the attraction to young Somalis of engaging in piracy? 

Parts of Somalia, like Puntland and Somaliland, work reasonably with functioning governments, law enforcement and judicial systems. The desperate need for more assistance is not so much in these areas but in the areas the pirates come from, if you are to stem the continuing rise in piracy. Of course, there are challenges because Somalia is a failed state, but it is essential that a determined effort is made in this respect. The international community and UN organisations must work harder to provide assistance to south-central Somalia.

About the author:

Pottengal Mukundan has been the Director of the International Maritime Bureau since 1996.


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November 11, 2011 4:10 pm

‘All efforts to protect ships at sea may be undermined if help is not given ashore where it is needed.’
We hope to see a return to law and order on the High Seas and that efforts will be made to bring realistic hope to the law-abiding people of Somalia as they struggle in desperate times.

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