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International Conference on Piracy at Sea

Keynote Address

October 17, 2011

​World Maritime University, Malmö, Sweden
17 – 19 October 2011
Address by E.E. Mitropoulos, Secretary-General, IMO

Excellencies, Heads of international organizations, Admirals, WMU President, Distinguished participants, lecturers, media representatives and students, ladies and gentlemen,

When IMO was established in 1948, it was unthinkable, by any stretch of the imagination on the part of the founding fathers, that 60 odd years later, the Organization would direct its attention and spend its time and resources in dealing with unlawful acts at sea.  And yet this has become the reality starting in the late 1970s, when the Organization was forced, owing to political problems in eastern Mediterranean to consider cases of barratry, unlawful seizure of ships and their cargoes and other forms of maritime fraud; moving on to consider piracy and armed robbery against ships in 1982; terrorism threatening shipping in 1985/88; and illicit drug trafficking, stowaway cases and illegal migrants moving by sea over the last two decades. 

Of all these worrying developments, the escalation of piracy in recent years, in particular off the coast of Somalia and in the wider expanse of the western Indian Ocean, has been a matter of great concern to the entire maritime community and, indeed, has become one of the rare maritime issues that has made headlines in the general media attracting the attention of a global audience. The severity of the situation is such that IMO has made combating piracy a central theme of our work this year – and I congratulate the organizers of this Conference for their timely and appropriate initiative to choose “piracy” as the topic of the meeting.
I am very pleased that the general theme of the Conference is supplemented by the sub-title “Save our Seafarers” – indeed, it is for them, in the first place, and with their plight in mind that we do what we do to stem the menace. 
The reality, of course, is that piracy, as it presents itself off Somalia nowadays, is too complex and has become too entrenched for any one entity to deal with it effectively. The United Nations, Governments acting collectively or individually, political and defence alliances, shipping companies, ship operators, ships’ crews, among others, all have a crucial part to play if shipping is to be rid of this crime and the integrity of strategically important shipping lanes is to be maintained. What is needed is a collective effort, which explains why IMO chose “Piracy: Orchestrating the response” as its theme for World Maritime Day 2011.

Even before the year started, IMO, in collaboration with industry and seafarer representative organizations, devised a multi-faceted action plan, designed to address the problem at several levels. Although the waters off the coast of Somalia and in the wider Indian Ocean constitute the current piracy “hot spot”, the action plan agreed draws heavily on the Organization’s considerable experience of tackling piracy in other parts of the world, most notably in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore and in the South China Sea.

The plan focuses on the achievement of six main objectives:
• one, to increase pressure at the political level to secure the release of all hostages being held by pirates;
• two, to review and improve the relevant IMO guidelines to Administrations and seafarers and promote compliance with industry best management practices and the recommended preventive, evasive and defensive measures ships should follow;
• three, to promote greater levels of support from, and coordination with, navies;
• four, to promote anti-piracy coordination and co-operation procedures between and among States, regions, organizations and industry;
• five, to assist States to build capacity in piracy-infested regions of the world (and elsewhere) to deter, interdict and bring to justice those who commit acts of piracy and armed robbery against ships; and
• six, to provide care for those attacked or hijacked by pirates, and for their families.

I will not go into too much detail here about the action plan itself, suffice it to say that it has backing at the highest level, and was launched at IMO Headquarters in the presence of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the Executive Heads of both the World Food Programme and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, with which IMO has established partnerships to ensure, with the support of the EU and NATO, delivery of humanitarian aid to Somalia, and to help establish and strengthen anti-piracy legislation in countries in the region.  Present were also representatives of the diplomatic community in London and senior officials from the shipping industry and seafarers’ organizations – which demonstrates the wide interest and seriousness with which the problem is being addressed in international circles.

Furthermore, in his own message to mark World Maritime Day on 29 September, Mr. Ban once again stressed his concern over the situation, when he said “ The international community must do more to combat this lawlessness, not only off the coast of Somalia, in the Gulf of Aden and in the Western Indian Ocean, but anywhere in the world.”  I am sure by this he meant the Gulf of Guinea, theatre of several pirate attacks recently.

We are seeking solutions in three distinct time horizons.  In the immediate term, our aim is to contain piracy, thwart pirate attacks and punish those responsible for such attacks; in the mid-term, our strategy is to undermine organized crime gangs that plan and mastermind pirate operations and make it harder for them to engage in, and conduct, such operations; while the long term solution should be for the international community to help the people of Somalia to rebuild their country, including establishing law and order conditions such that crime will no longer be a preferred option for several of them.

Despite the number of attacks overall continuing to cause concern, there is, nevertheless, some cause for cautious optimism. The percentage of successfully concluded attacks – meaning that the ships attacked have fallen in the hands of pirates – has dropped, from more than 40 per cent historically, to less than 20 per cent this year – testimony, no doubt, to the effectiveness both of the naval presence in the region and the application of best management practices developed by the industry itself.  From a peak of 31 ships with a total of 714 seafarers in the hands of pirates in February of this year, the number of those held hostage at present has reduced to less than half:  316 seafarers on 15 ships – although even one seafarer in captivity is one too many!  And, of course, this relatively good news should not allow any room for complacency, especially now that the monsoon period that has kept the pirates at bay for some time has come to an end – on the contrary, we should intensify our efforts to stem the unacceptable phenomenon that piracy presents today.
One IMO initiative, that is helping to build a solid regional infrastructure to tackle the problem successfully in the medium to long term, is the Djibouti Code of Conduct. This has now been signed by 18 States, each of which has pledged to co-operate in the implementation of measures aimed at suppressing the scourge, including in the investigation, arrest and prosecution of pirates; the interdiction and seizure of suspect ships; the rescue of ships, persons and property subject to piracy and armed robbery and the facilitation of proper care, treatment and repatriation of piracy victims; and in sharing operations – both among signatory States and with navies from countries outside the region; and the sharing of information.

A Project Implementation Unit was established within the IMO Secretariat in April 2010 to coordinate and manage the execution of relevant capacity-building activities aimed at promoting effective implementation of the Djibouti Code of Conduct. These activities are being funded by a Trust Fund established by IMO specifically for the purposes of the Djibouti Code.

The Implementation Unit is currently focusing on the development of maritime situational awareness within the signatory States; exchanging piracy-related information via three regional counter-piracy information sharing centres recently commissioned in Dar es Salaam, Mombasa and Sana'a; establishing a regional training facility in Djibouti; reviewing national legal frameworks and helping the development of national legislation to prosecute pirates; and assisting regional States to develop their coast guard capabilities. Training and assessment missions to the region are also being conducted, with more planned for next year.

It is unrealistic to expect IMO alone to provide a comprehensive solution to the problem of piracy off the coast of Somalia – particularly since, although it manifests itself at sea, its roots are to be found ashore. Nevertheless, through our action plan and other initiatives, such as the Djibouti Code, we feel confident we will be able to make a difference where the problem is being most acutely felt – at sea.
There are few shipping nations whose ships or seafarers have been immune from the despicable crimes that are taking place in the western Indian Ocean nowadays. It is, therefore, crucial that the political will among those Governments that have the potential to make a difference is translated into their acting in a manner that matches their political ambition and the severity of the issue demands. Resources (in the form of naval vessels and military aircraft) being made available; legislation to ensure that pirates do not escape prosecution being expeditiously adopted and rigorously enacted; and strongly recommending that ships flying their flag comply, while sailing through piracy-infested areas, with the best management practices and, when transiting the Gulf of Aden, keep within the internationally recommended corridor – all these should be high on the agenda of, and acted upon by, Governments and all other entities affected by piracy as it presents itself in the western Indian Ocean these days.

Of course, much has already been done to counter the threat, as you will hear during this Conference.  But more – much more – still needs to be done. This conference will do a great deal to help identify the future strategies and levels of commitment that will be needed to stem this unacceptable tide. These range from ‘front line’ operations such as those being carried out with great effect by the combined naval forces operating in the region, to the less obvious, but no less important, work being undertaken to address the complex jurisdictional issues surrounding piracy. Technological innovations to help stave off pirate attacks and efforts to trace, and then interrupt, the flow of illegal money emanating from pirate activities are further examples of what a multi-faceted and complex issue this has become.

These three days you will hear a lot and analyse as many issues surrounding piracy off Somalia : “Mother ships”, “human shields”, “citadels”, armed guards (a generic form for “privately contracted armed security personnel on board ships”, “vessel protection detachments” even “UN blue berets”) have become so much in vogue recently that cannot surely escape the attention of a conference like this.
And I note, with satisfaction, that a considerable portion of this conference will be devoted to addressing the human side of piracy when, among other things, we shall learn about efforts being made to ensure that proper medical and psychological assistance is available to the victims of pirate attacks and to their families. This is an aspect that has, perhaps, been somewhat overlooked until relatively recently and it deserves our full attention.

As I alluded to, when referring to the recently reported falling percentage of attacks that end up with ships being taken by pirates, some success in thwarting pirate attacks can be claimed.  But the fact that the incidence of pirate attacks, overall, still shows little sign of weakening has only served to strengthen our determination to meet the challenge. We believe that we can use the experience gained and the successes achieved in reducing piracy elsewhere in the world to good effect in the current arena too – but, as our World Maritime Day theme clearly suggests, to do so requires a well-devised and coordinated response.

No effort should be spared to alleviate this unacceptable situation. Shipping companies must ensure that their ships rigorously apply the IMO guidance and the industry-developed best management practices in their entirety, so that, when venturing into high-risk areas, they comply with all the recommended measures. No ship is invulnerable, in particular those with relatively low freeboards and slow steaming speeds. And, as I referred to earlier, Governments need to back up their oft-stated concern over the situation by deploying military and other resources commensurate, in numbers and technology, with the scale of the problem and with a realistic chance of dealing with it effectively.
As the statistics so bleakly indicate, piracy and armed robbery against ships remain real and ever-present dangers to those who use the seas for peaceful purposes. So long as pirates continue harassing shipping, hijacking ships and seafarers, we are neither proud of, nor content with, the results achieved so far.
Ladies and gentlemen, let me conclude by thanking the World Maritime University for organizing such an insightful and stimulating conference, which, I am confident, will highlight that a great deal more needs to be done if the ultimate goal of consigning piracy to the realms of history is to be achieved. We hope that our choice of theme for 2011 will continue to provide an appropriate rallying point around which all those who can make a difference can focus their efforts – now, and into the future.

A recent report has put the annual cost of piracy to the world economy between 7 and 12 billion US dollars. Shocking though this is, it is the human cost that, to my mind, is far worse and which should concern us above all else. Many seafarers today go about their daily business in ships sheathed in razor wire, in a state of constant wariness as they run the gauntlet of pirate gangs. Most, thankfully, sail undisturbed by pirates into more hospitable waters, but others are far less fortunate. This is a tragic situation for them and their families, and one from which we can take no comfort whatsoever.

And, as the year we have dedicated to orchestrating the response against the scourge of modern-day piracy draws to a close, I think it appropriate for us to remember the very real humanitarian cost of piracy.  Our thoughts and prayers are with those seafarers, who, at present, are in the hands of pirates. May they all be released unharmed and returned to their families soon.
Ladies and gentlemen, let me wish you every success in this conference and let us all, during these three days, consciously undertake to strengthen our collective resolve to eradicate this appalling and costly crime-wave.