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.

Pirates and fraternities, Colorado and the high seas

2015 Venney MarilynBy Marilyn Venney

Telling people that I’m spending the summer in Boulder, Colorado while interning at an organization that works to combat piracy usually elicits some surprise. I’ve become used to questions like “Oh, you mean online piracy?” or “…in Colorado?”. And it has been strange in some ways. Boulder is absolutely beautiful, and has a reputation for being a city full of outdoorsy, active hippies. It’s also a place where college students drive shiny new Range Rovers and spend their summers playing beer pong on the lawns of their frats. It’s a place where it took me three weeks to find a store that sold cucumbers for less than 4 dollars apiece. Where, as of the 2011 census, 88 percent of the population were white and only 0.9 percent were black or African American. This is the backdrop for my evenings and weekends here.

My weekdays, on the other hand, are spent in an office full of people who are very passionate about and committed to various development issues. One Earth Future operates with the ultimate mission of preventing armed conflict and promoting peace through better, more effective government. Of the number of different projects within OEF, this summer I’m working with Oceans Beyond Piracy. Despite my background being in international development, before this summer my familiarity with piracy issues was basic at best. That changed quickly though, as I was thrown into the frenzy leading up to the release of OBP’s annual report assessing the economic and human costs of piracy. Everyone in the office was coming in early and leaving late, doing everything they could to make sure the messages were clear and the numbers were adding up. They have good reason to be so diligent: OBP is only a few years old, but in that short time it has become a respected authority on piracy issues. Its State of Piracy reports gather a great deal of attention each year and have solidified the role of OBP as a crucial actor in the maritime community’s efforts to combat piracy.

I work in the West Africa section of OBP, which means that I spend a lot of time sifting through legislation from West African countries, translating them, and pulling out provisions that are relevant to our work. The nature of piracy in West Africa is fundamentally different from that off the coast of Somalia, and therefore requires different solutions. Ships travelling off the coast of Somalia are usually only passing through, and have little reason to stop in Somali ports. As they never enter Somalia’s territorial waters, they are never subject to Somali law. Ships travelling off the coast of West and Central Africa, on the other hand, make frequent stops in ports and must regularly enter territorial waters. As a result, the responses to piracy that have been so effective in Somalia — the use of armed guards has been a key deterrent to pirate activity off the Horn of Africa — are unworkable in West Africa where ships cannot legally bring teams of armed security guards into a state’s territorial waters. Similarly, the prosecution of Somali pirates was delegated to other states in the region, since, as a failed state, Somalia had little capacity or desire to prosecute. West African countries, however, have a more important role in arresting and prosecuting pirates. The problem is that, as far as OBP can tell, there have been no prosecution of pirates in West Africa.

These challenges are the bases for the two projects that I’ve been working on lately. First, I’ve been helping to locate and analyze any legislation relating to a state’s ability to prosecute pirates, either for the crime of piracy or for some other crime, like armed robbery, assault or murder. Second, I’ve been researching private security legislation as part of an effort to help shipping companies and private security companies understand what the actual policies of each West African state are with regard to whether ships can use armed guards.

So that’s how I spend my weekdays: immersed in the legislation of West African countries and discussing the enormous impacts of piracy on seafarers in West Africa. And then I go home, where I spend my evenings and weekends in beautiful Boulder, hiking, camping, and watching a real-life frat movie unfold across the street from my house. It’s weird.

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