Violence at sea, without consequences

2015 Venney MarilynBy Marilyn Venney

One of the main focuses at Oceans Beyond Piracy is, of course, piracy. But piracy is itself a symptom of a much wider issue – the lack of effective governance over the high seas. This isn’t a new problem, and although there are a number of international conventions in place aimed at filling the gap, the fact is that people and vessels operating in international waters are not usually subject to a great deal of oversight. And part of the problem is that there isn’t much interest in this lawlessness or motivation to address it.

This lack of interest is something that OBP has struggled with in the past. Last year a cellphone video turned up on the internet depicting the brutal murder of four seafarers, filmed by some unknown sailor on board another ship. To watch the video, which is graphic and disturbing, see the New York Times article Murder at Sea http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/20/world/middleeast/murder-at-sea-captured-on-video-but-killers-go-free.html. For those who’d rather not watch, the video shows a group of large vessels surrounding four men in the water, who are hanging on to the floating remains of their small vessel. One by one they are shot to death by a person or multiple people on board one of the larger ships.

When the video surfaced, OBP sent it to mainstream news outlets (in addition to the maritime news sources that OBP often deals with), positive that this would be the incident that pushed seafarer issues and the problem of lawlessness at sea to a wider audience. While the video is now a centerpiece of one segment of the New York Times series The Outlaw Ocean, it took over a year to gain the type of attention that OBP hoped it would attract.

It’s possible that the murdered seafarers were a group of pirates whose attack had just been thwarted. Or maybe they were fishermen from a coastal West African town who got too close to a large international vessel, spooking the sailors and armed guards on board. Unfortunately, pirates don’t actually fly a skull and cross-bones flag, and in practice their small boats are not always distinguishable from the fishing vessels used by fishermen from the region. Sailors on board large international vessels and the teams of armed guards hired to protect them are understandably fearful when travelling through the dangerous waters of the Gulf of Guinea. However, that fear, combined with the knowledge that they enjoy relative impunity, can result in a dangerous propensity to assume that seafarers seemingly approaching them are pirates, and to react accordingly. Although it’s impossible to know what happened before the video begins, in the minutes before their murder it was obvious that they did not pose a threat: their boat was destroyed and they were all hanging on to its remains to stay afloat.

Either way the video is proof of a serious problem: even if the murdered seafarers were pirates, killing them when they were clearly incapacitated would not have been legal. And if they weren’t – if they were innocent fishermen who got a little too close for comfort – their murder is indicative of the danger faced by fishermen operating off the coast of West Africa. There is always the possibility that they could be mistaken for pirates, and there isn’t much protecting them. In this case a video of the incident turned up years later after the cellphone was forgotten in a cab in Fiji and its contents were discovered and released. Normally, though, no one would know. So how many innocent fishermen have faced this end?

The recent NY Times series on lawlessness at sea was definitely a welcome change for organizations like OBP pushing for improved governance over the high seas. Hopefully, it will bring the kind of attention that will make it easier to push for positive change. To read the whole series, go to http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/07/24/world/the-outlaw-ocean.html?action=click&contentCollection=Opinion&module=RelatedCoverage&region=Marginalia&pgtype=article.

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