Piracy in West Africa: A Symptom of Wider Problems?

By Trelawny, Chris | New African, March 2013 | Go to article overview

Piracy in West Africa: A Symptom of Wider Problems?


Trelawny, Chris, New African


Despite what others say about piracy in West Africa, Chris Trelawny, the senior deputy director responsible for maritime security and facilitation at the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), the UN specialised agency (writing here in his personal capacity and not that of the IMO), thinks political leaders should change their mindsets and focus on the opportunities afforded by the maritime sector and not get unduly distracted by problems such as piracy and armed robbery against ships.

REPORTS IN THE WORLD PRESS WOULD HAVE US BELIEVE that piracy and armed robbery against ships in the Gulf of Guinea have reached epidemic proportions. This perceived threat to the supply of oil from the region, the adoption of United Nations Security Council resolutions 2018(2011) and 2039(2012) and the recent focus on piracy and armed robbery by the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Gulf of Guinea Commission (GGC), to name but a few, have added to the impression that the threat from these criminals has suddenly started to spiral out of control.

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But is this really true? Even if it is, is piracy actually the problem or is it a diversion from bigger issues? If the problem is not piracy, then what are the real problems? And, more importantly, how do we fix them?

Before we go any further, it is important to clarify what the terms "piracy" and "armed robbery against ships" actually mean. The legal definitions are given in the box opposite. However, essentially both are crimes committed by persons in one vessel against persons and property in another vessel for the purpose of personal gain.

The main difference between them is that piracy takes place outside of a state's jurisdiction, i.e. outside of the coastal state's territorial waters (12, nautical miles) whereas armed robbery against ships takes place within a coastal state's jurisdiction, in territorial waters. Although to the victim the difference may seem irrelevant, the rights and obligations of states to intervene and establish jurisdiction are critical factors in the response, or lack of response, to these crimes. Put simply, piracy is a universal crime and all states have an obligation to intervene. Inside territorial waters, it is the coastal state's responsibility.

Table 1. Piracy and armed robbery incidents in West
Africa reported to IMO from 1 January-31 December 2012

CHEMICAL TANKERS                  16

PRODUCT TANKERS                   11

BULK CARRIERS                      6

OIL TANKERS                        5

TANKERS                            5

CONTAINER SHIPS                    4

GENERAL CARGO SHIPS                4

REFRIGERATED CARGO CARRIERS        4

OTHERS (VEHICLE CARRIERS, ETC.)    5

The IMO

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) is the specialised agency of the UN responsible for all aspects of maritime safety, maritime security (including countering piracy), facilitation of international maritime transport, and protection of the marine environment. As such, the IMO receives reports of reported and attempted attacks by pirates and armed robbers and publishes them via its Global Integrated Shipping Information System (GISIS) (http://gisis.imo.org). Whereas nobody would pretend that the statistics are totally accurate (there is known to be under-reporting of less serious attacks for a variety of reasons), they are useful indicators of general trends.

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A study of the statistics reveals some interesting facts. For example, the number of acts of piracy and armed robbery against ships in West Africa reported to the IMO covering the period January to 31 December 2.012 was 6o, a drop of 8% compared to 65 reported incidents in 2011. Of the Go incidents reported in 2012, 37 were attacks on tankers (16 chemical tankers, it product tankers, 5 oil tankers and 5 tankers, see Tables rand 2). …

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