The attempted attack on the MSC Melody sent a clear message to the cruise industry about the growing threat of piracy. Phin Foster talks to the EC’s Dimitrios Theologitis about how the maritime sector needs to find a long-lasting solution.
Despite their lack of success, last April’s pirate attack on the MSC Melody 600 miles off the Somalian coast was a harbinger of some worrying developments within the Indian Ocean.
Following an assault on a US cargo ship the previous week, the Melody was actually sailing further from the mainland than usual, adding an extra 400 miles to its route and even necessitating the cancellation of a planned stopover in Safaga, Egypt.
Despite this, it was only through the intervention of armed Israeli security guards stationed on board that the 994 passengers and some 500 crew were able to escape unharmed.
Once the relief had subsided, MSC and its fellow operators were forced to face up to some rather uncomfortable truths: pirates had increased their range of operations, sailing further afield in their hunt for new targets. They were unafraid to unleash ultimate force, "firing wildly," in the words of the ship’s commander, Ciro Pinto, while the presence of over 1,000 people on board seemingly did little to dissuade their efforts.
MSC decided to cancel all such sailings, a decision soon followed by Yachts of Seabourn and Fred Olsen Cruise Lines, but ships still scheduled to visit the area in 2010 include the Queen Mary 2, Queen Elizabeth, Dawn Princess, Seven Seas Voyager and Costa Cruises’ Europa, Deliziosa, Luminosa and Romantica. An increased naval presence in the region, as well as rising international focus on the problem, may have displaced pirate activity, but it has not served to stem the tide of attacks.
The Government of the Seychelles recently announced the construction of special courts and a maximum security prison to combat the growing menace of Somali pirates, sighted almost daily at the tail-end of last year. With international naval forces already policing a vast area, it also begs another question: is it necessary for cruise ships to be there at all?
"That raises a very interesting philosophical conundrum," says Dimitrios Theologitis, head of unit in charge of Maritime Transport and Ports Policy; Maritime Security at the European Commission (EC). "How essential is entertainment? I would not want to go down that route too deeply, the necessity of cruising, it falls well beyond my remit." Indeed, it would be one of the few maritime issues not under his responsibility. With the EC since 1984, the Greek native’s main focus is the definition of a vision for maritime transport over the next ten years, and the further development of maritime security.
Pirates may be operating outside European waters, but they are becoming an ever increasing concern among many of his key stakeholders. These include cruise operators, as represented by the European Community Ship Owning Association. While Theologitis is at pains to differentiate between areas of "community interest" and "community competence", the EC is not shy in encouraging and sharing best practices among all members. "The IMO recently published two documents concerning ships passing the Horn of Africa and, in our eyes, their recommendations must be followed at all times," he says. "Failure to do so is unacceptable."
A key component of this advice is that ships announce their impending presence to the region’s Maritime Security Centre so that a full risk assessment can be conducted and advice given as to how and when the crossing should be completed. "Ship owners may be concerned about speed of passage or insurance costs, but trying the trip alone without any prior coordination with naval forces operating in the region is a ridiculous risk to take," Theologitis continues. "Despite this, around 30% of ships entering the area don’t follow these best management practices.
The vast majority of vessels captured have made this mistake." But what of those operators that do take precautions? The MSC Melody was 600 miles from the coast and had added 400 miles to its route, yet was only saved by the presence of armed forces on board.
Theologitis acknowledges that there is an element of "pure bad luck" in such a scenario, but does not believe that the cruise ship’s escape validates the presence of armed guards. "This does not fall under community competence and the Commission’s line is not binding," he acknowledges, "but we believe there should be no security personnel on board who do not have an official mandate by the flag state in question. We want to avoid the problems of liability, responsibility and rules of engagement that private security firms might bring. "It is also essential that we don’t escalate the violence. I hate saying this, but at the moment piracy is mainly a dirty business transaction. We must avoid escalating it into a war. From our discussions with ship masters and mariners associations, it is clear that this is a danger they’re well aware of; start bombing and shooting and who knows where things might lead?"
The EC is conducting an ongoing dialogue with shipping interests over the implementation of non-lethal weaponry and other means of repelling pirates. However, Theologitis believes the longterm solution lies not at sea but on land.
"There are now ports in Somalia that are refuges for pirates – it’s fair to say that the International Shipping and Port Facility Code is not implemented as fully as it could be," he says. "Under normal circumstances this should not be possible. Nearly 40% of foreign aid going into Somalia comes from the EU. We are already helping to provide capacity-building measures to strengthen some sort of sustainable government. We need to help Somalia stand on its own two feet and only then can it help itself."
As an example of former success, Theologitis cites the combating of piracy in the Strait of Malacca. "A lot of European funding went into the area," he explains. "It was invested in surveillance and capacity building operations and the development of Indonesian and Malaysian coastguards. Now that they are able to police those waters themselves the instance of attacks has gone down dramatically. Through engagement we are able to get real results."
Funding, coordination, information, dialogue and the development of best management practices will all go towards achieving this end goal, and the EC is committed to confronting member states with their responsibility to ensure IMO recommendations are followed.
The results will not be instantaneous, but Theologitis believes the issue of piracy is not insurmountable. "Cruise vessels are certainly a lucrative target," he acknowledges, "and operators do need to be aware of that and use all the information at their disposal to carry out a full risk assessment. Stakeholders also need to support the measures that are already being taken. At some point the seas will become safe again, but it will not be tomorrow."