Scope and Scale: Piracy as a Global Phenomenon
Maritime piracy is a multimillion-dollar criminal enterprise of vital concern to international maritime commerce and security of the communities it affects. Incidents of maritime piracy have been on the rise in recent decades. While contemporary news reporting may focus solely on the problem in Somalia and the Gulf of Aden, piracy has transnational repercussions and operates along all major maritime trade routes. It faces no restrictions to where it can operate, and has plagued the waters of Asia, Africa, and South America. Piracy is a problem of human and national security that necessitates regional cooperation since it threatens international commercial interests and people.
This map is a live-action project conducted by the International Maritime Bureau that monitors international instances of piracy. Note the scale of the phenomenon in both 2013 and 2012.
Piracy has never been restricted to a single geographical location. Historically, pirates in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries functioned in and around the Americas where and when large-scale navies were not yet established and colonies were too weak to repel them (1). Even further into antiquity, Phoenicians and Vikings conducted piratical enterprises in the Mediterranean and the North Sea/ Baltic Sea areas, respectively. Piracy in the Indian Ocean was characterized during colonial times by the intense maritime warring of both local pirates and Western European privateers. Further east, piracy in Southeast Asia was “guerrilla warfare at sea” between localities of Indonesia or Malaysia and Dutch naval power (1). As large navies became the norm in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, piracy became largely obsolete. However, the late 20th and 21st centuries have witnessed a proliferation of piratical acts around the world.
Pirates differ from those in history because they are now more sophisticated and organized. Their actions to overtake ships are systematic and carefully planned. Pirates who flood the seas with “sophisticated equipment, including speed boats, modern machine guns, communication devices, trawlers, barges, and oil industry backup ships” are extremely difficult to combat and they are therefore a serious security problem (7).
Southeast Asian and Indian Subcontinent Piracy
This region encompasses the waters of Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Singapore, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, and Cambodia
The Strait of Malacca is 520 miles long and only 11 miles wide at its opening. Ships passing from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea and Pacific have to travel through this narrow strait. Annually, about 40% of the world’s maritime trade on more than 50,000 vessels passes through this strait (2).
Pirates can easily function in this area because
1. Reduced speed through the narrow sea passages makes ships very vulnerable to attack.
2. There are numerous negligible and remote islets in the area that function as sanctuaries for pirates.
3. The area offers secret coves and places to hide away.
4. The region accounts for 15.8% of the world’s total coastline, making it difficult for authorities to patrol (12).
In 2004 and the preceding decade, piracy was rampant in Southeast Asia. Insecurity in the maritime region was exacerbated by the lack of navel capacities of governments to police their national waters and the impoverished state of local fishermen who needed another means of income (6). The region was responsible for the majority of the world’s pirate activity. The countries most affected- Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia- joined to promote regional security through the joint actions of sea patrols, coast watches, and shared intelligence (2). Operation MALSINDO consisted of maritime patrols and Operation EIS provided air surveillance for the Strait of Malacca (6). Government cooperation and organization was largely the reason for solving the pirate problem. Until 2009, levels of piracy in Southeast Asia were nearly negligible. Since 2010, piracy has increased in Southeast Asia because of pirates’ growing capabilities, higher concentration of shipping, the ability of piracy to alleviate poverty and the absence of coordination among littoral states to combat the problem (12).
West African Piracy
This encompasses Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Kenya, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Republic of the Congo, and other neighboring nations as piracy spreads.
The Gulf of Guinea, stretching 5300 miles along the West Coast of Africa, is the piracy hotspot of the region. The Gulf’s states produce five billion barrels of oil per day (9). Nigeria’s immense oil wealth spurred its piracy problem because trade of this natural resource brought immense wealth disparity to the state. Poverty-stricken people began participating in criminal cartels to propel them from their poor economic conditions. Their aim is obtaining wealth, so oil tankers are usually the target of these attacks. Crews are taken hostage in extreme cases, but usually oil is looted and sold on the black market. Since ransoms are not the goal of these pirates, violence is escalated. Guns were used in 63% of attacks in 2012, the numbers having increased since 2011 (11).
This is a first hand account of a man taken by Nigerian pirates in late February 2013:
Cases are focused close to Lagos or within the Niger River Delta, where oil activities are focused. Nigeria’s rebel Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND) has been responsible foe a number of attacks of oil tankers in conjunction with pirate groups (8). Nigeria’s oil piracy poses a dangerous threat to the environment. Each day, the Gulf of Guinea ships 1.5 billion barrels of oil to the United States alone (13). In 2009 a Japanese oil tanker, the Takayama, was shot at off the coast of Somalia. The bullets pierced the tanks of oil onboard, causing a minor spill into the sea. While this instance was controlled, other occurrences of oil tankers being attacked by pirates could result in severe environmental damages if they were left for days or week without proper care.
There was a 33% increase in the number of reported acts of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea in the first six months of 2012 as compared to the first half of 2011; pirates here cost on average two billion dollars annually (9). The Gulf of Guinea lacks any regulation by a multilateral regional cooperation of states, meaning that piracy will continue to expand.
This is an interesting Foreign Policy article that suggests that the Gulf of Guinea may overtake Somalia as the pirate hotspot in coming years: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/12/20/pirates_of_the_guinean?page=0,1
While pirates in Africa use AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades, and mortars, pirates operating in Southeast Asia use more rudimentary weapons and are usually less violent towards crews (7). Southeast Asian pirates are generally armed with machetes and knives. Attacks are directed at all types of ships; pirates typically flag down a target vessel, board it, order the crew overboard, and then steal boat parts, cargos, and valuables before fleeing (10). Piratical acts occurring more recently in South America and the Caribbean are similar to those in Asia. Attacks in Columbia, Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Brazil have been characterized by the theft of ship’s stores without violence (11). Like Southeast Asian pirates, hostages are usually not taken and weapons are rudimentary. Antithetically, Gulf of Guinea pirates are violent and have killed and more often injured crewmembers with AK-47s, RPGs, and other automatic weapons (11). Unlike Somalian pirates who need their hostages to alive to receive a ransom, Nigerian pirates have less care for human life.
Several conditions are conducive to piracy:
1. The proximity of advantageous geographical features, islets, or remote costal areas that escape the authority of government
2. The geo-economic conditions of the host country of the pirates (i.e. if the country is near major trade routes of has maritime capabilities)
3. Weak, ineffective, or failed states do not operate properly and therefore do not enforce laws against piracy (3)
4. Poverty forces people to obtain subsistence by lucrative means (7)
5. Flaws or holes in maritime-transport treaties (7)
6. Overlapping maritime boundaries (12)
7. Knowledge that crews of most maritime ships were unarmed and vulnerable (7)
8. Local authorities turning a blind eye to piratical activities because of the knowledge they will benefit
9. Sophisticated weaponry, boats, and communications equipment (10)
10. Local knowledge of the waters
11. The view that piracy is an acceptable and integral part of the culture (12)
Piracy incurs global costs: It increases maritime transport costs because it forces ship owners to take less direct routes that avoid dangerous zones (3), there are higher fuel and labor costs, ships are limited to making fewer voyages (4), the insecurity of goods deliveries decreases trade opportunities and lead to declining investment (6), cargos are stolen (9), insurance is higher to transit through dangerous areas (9), and higher wages have to be paid because of the high risk (9). The trade loss due to piracy between Europe and Asia was 24.5 billion dollars in 2008 alone (6).
These statistics and interactive maps show us that piracy is a serious matter, one of international scope. Pirates operate in waters around the world and are usually beyond the control of local governments. Maritime pirates are products of insecurity, and yet they produce insecurity.
The ICC International Maritime Bureau gives extensive quantitative and qualitative data on all attacks of piracy in 2012:
(1) Abbot, Jason and Neil Renwick. “Pirates? Maritime Piracy and Societal Security in Southeast Asia.” In Pacifica Review: Peace, Security & Global Change 11, No. 1 (1999): 7-24.
(2) Schuman, Michael. “How to Defeat Pirates: Success in the Strait.” Times. April 22, 2009.
(3) Martinez-Zarzoso, Immaculada and Sami Benassi. “The Price of Modern Maritime Piracy.” In Deference and Peace Economics. (2013).
(4) Kraska, James. “Freakomics of Maritime Piracy.” Brown Jounral of World Affairs 16, No. 2 (Spring/Summer 2010).
(5) Middleton, Roger. “Trends in Piracy: A Global Problem with Somalia at the Core.” Africa Programme, Chatham House. (2010).
(6) Bensassi, Sami and Inmaculada Martinez-Zarzoso. “How Costly is Modern Maritime Piracy to the International Community?” In Review of International Economics 20, No. 5 (2012): 869-883.
(7) Anyu, J. Ndumbe and Samuel Moki. “Africa: The Piracy Hot Spot and Its Implications for Global Security.” From Mediterranean Quarterly 20, No. 3 (Summer 2009).
(8) Alessi, Christopher. “Combating Maritime Piracy.” Council on Foreign Relations. (March 23, 2012).
(9) Sullivan, Jimmie E. “Maritime Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea: Regional Challenges and Solutions.” Naval War College. (November 2012).
(10) Rabasa, Angel and Peter Chalk. “Non-Traditional Threats and Maritime Domain Awareness in the Tri-Border Area of Southeast Asia: The Coast Watch System of the Philippines.” National Defense Research Institute. (2012).
(11) “Piracy and Armed Robert Against Ships.” ICC International Maritime Bureau. London, United Kingdom. (2012).
(12) Banlaoi, Rommel C. “Maritime Piracy in Southeast Asia: Current Situation, Countermeasures, Achievements and Recurring Challenges.” Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence, and Terrorism Research. (2012).