Tuesday July 05, 2022

Safeguarding vital links in sea trade

November 22, 2016

Nothing encapsulates, and perhaps embodies the spirit of globalisation better than world trade, most of which is carried out via the medium of the sea. Maritime trade can thus be said to be the pivot around which the global economy as well as our collective social well-being actually revolves. The biggest breakthrough by far occurred in 1957 when the first dedicated container-carrying vessel put to sea. It made an indelible and immediate impact on world trade by not only making transoceanic trade profitable but by completely transforming a system that was seen as slow and unwieldy into an efficient one. More than 90% of general cargo is currently being transported in containers.

As maritime trade flourishes, it is but natural for challenges to crop up in its wake. These take the form of piracy, poaching, environmental degradation, narco-smuggling, gun-running and human trafficking, and extends all the way to terrorism at sea, which despite being a relatively recent phenomenon, is potentially the most destructive and disruptive.

The modus operandi of criminal syndicates is to preferably avoid direct confrontation with Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs) by working under the radar in a medium so vast that it makes effective policing difficult anyway. It is however no secret that proceeds so generated through illegal activities at sea can and do find their way into funding terrorism. Of all the threats, this is the one most difficult to counter as it is not only unpredictable but operates with the singular objective of wreaking maximum havoc. It finds a fertile hunting ground in the field of maritime transportation as it is subjected to far fewer checks than seen on land.

The 1985 hijacking of the passenger liner AchilleLauro in the Mediterranean along with the senseless killing of an aged passenger sent shock waves through the maritime community. The ensuing deliberations led to the adoption of the UN Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts (SUA) against the Safety of Maritime Navigation in 1988.

The SUA Convention served the international maritime community well till the magnitude of the 9/11 terrorist attacks took everyone by surprise and ushered in its wake the stark realisation that any similar attack on any major maritime hub could very well cause a sizeable dent in the global economy. Security measures in ports, off the coast and on the High Seas were indeed so lax at the time that such a scenario wasn’t entirely unimaginable. The US felt particularly vulnerable as it had some 361 odd ports to protect and although some 14 agencies were involved in the process, not one counted it amongst its major mission.

The Container Security Initiative (CSI) was launched within four months of the 9/11 attacks, the underlying idea being to focus on the ocean-going containers (through which the bulk of the world trade is being conducted) as well as on the top 20 ports which were handling over two-thirds of the container volume to the US. The Customs and Border Protection (CBPs), Automated Targeting System (ATS) pre-screens every arriving shipment to assign a level of risk for terrorism, which in turn enables all high-risk containers to be set aside for closer inspection through non-intrusive means.

By far the greatest breakthrough in strengthening maritime security occurred in December 2002 at an IMO-sponsored conference, where the new international Ship and Port Facility Security Code was tabled as an amendment to the existing Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention (1974/88) and its compliance became mandatory for the 148 contracting parties to SOLAS. The ISPS Code provides mandatory requirement for governments, port authorities and shipping companies, as well as guidance for implementation.

During the period 2005 to 2012, piracy off Somalia posed the predominant threat to world shipping. What started off as a local endeavour to curb the rampant poaching and dumping of toxic waste in lawless Somali waters grew into a full-blown piratical enterprise. Incidents of piracy rose seven fold to 35 in 2005, prior declining briefly the next year, and then from 31 pirate attacks in 2007, the problem literally exploded in 2008, when fabulous sums of money were raked in as ransom for captured vessels, cargo and crew. In 2010 alone, pirates seized close to 50 vessels, taking nearly 1200 seamen as hostages. And from this peak, piracy dwindled gradually in 2011 and more rapidly in the next. In figurative terms, successful seizures went down from 49 in 2010 to 28 in 2011 and only 13 in 2012. Despite a large number of warships being employed in the area to thwart piracy, what caused piracy to flourish was a belated and disjointed international response. A large number of warships did converge on to the high-risk or vulnerable areas by 2009, either as part of international groupings like the EUs OperstionAtalanta, NATOs Operation Ocean Shield or the international coalition’s CTF 151, or as individual units, in order to protect their country’s national interests. At the end of the day, piracy off Somalia, which had spread its tentacles to the furthest reaches of the western Indian Ocean, was brought under control through a series of coordinated steps.

Compared to Somali piracy in its heyday, piracy incidents in the Malacca Straits, the South China Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the Gulf of Guinea are mere pinpricks. Piracy in the Malacca Straits has been kept in check through effective coordination between the three major countries straddling the waterway, namely Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, by the setting up of Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against ships in Asia (ReCAAP) and instituting the joint Malacca Straits patrol. The only major flashpoint at the moment is the Gulf of Guinea, where the principal regional player, Nigeria, needs to spearhead a similar initiative. The G8++ Friends of the Gulf of Guinea (FOGG) group tries to help out with the capacity-building of the regional states.