Last month an extraordinary parade of 28 foreign ministers took to a stage in a Dubai hotel to proclaim that a solution to piracy was at the top of their priority list.
The spectacle was witnessed by several of the world’s largest shipowners as well as a remarkable assembly of senior international political figures, senior United Nations agency representatives and rival Somali leaders from across the war-torn political divide – all there at the expense of the United Arab Emirates government, which had organised the meeting.
Pledges of cash to bolster the UN counter-piracy trust fund were duly made in a series of robust speeches, and representatives from over 50 governments were on hand to denounce the international threat to world trade and insist “something must be done”.
So why, given the overwhelming political support for a counter-piracy trust fund that even conservative estimates suggest needs $20m to be effective, did this unprecedented gathering only raise $4.5m – a figure that would barely cover the cost of organising the event or indeed a single hijack ransom payment? And why do internal UN agency documents and minutes from international counter-piracy strategy meetings still reveal high-level concerns about the lack of political will to respond to piracy and the unwillingness of governments to match rhetoric with action?
“The political will has been pronounced by many people in positions of power many times, but this will is not being translated into deeds and acts,” International Maritime Organization secretary-general Efthimios Mitropoulos told Lloyd’s List.
His criticism of the efforts being made and the ineffectiveness of existing co-ordination strategies matches the groundswell of concern among industry representatives across the spectrum.
Minutes from the last Contact Group meeting, which brought together government representatives and industry officials, reveal a growing belief among key stakeholders that many states are not doing their fair share and that there is an overwhelming absence of a strategic approach to tackle piracy that could yet force shipowners to boycott the region.
Repeated UN Security Council resolutions have tactfully noted “concern” at the number of states without adequate domestic legal provisions to tackle piracy and condemned the fact that nine out of 10 captured pirates are subsequently released by states unprepared to prosecute.
But the bulging file of resolutions does not appear to have convinced states to address these issues and the level of prosecutions has not increased, despite significant development work in several African states.
While the UAE-organised meeting in Dubai pulled in high-level political support and was a welcome display of leadership on the piracy issue from local Middle East states, the unprecedented attempt to create a public-private funded partnership focused almost exclusively on tackling piracy at its source – on land.
Ministers attending queued up to argue that the current approach to managing acts of piracy was no longer a viable, but ultimately there was little in the way of funds being offered to support such rhetoric.
Given the increasing pressure on navies providing counter-piracy support in the Indian Ocean, several industry and diplomatic sources have told Lloyd’s List they fear a switch in political approach to land-based development work that will ultimately be under-resourced could further jeopardise the level of resources being made available for naval defence at sea.
While government ministers publicly insist it is not an ‘either or’ situation, at least one government minister privately voiced his opinion that there had been an “over-investment” in naval containment policy and argued that his preference to see money and resources head shore-side was shared by several others with influence inside key UN agencies.
It is worth noting that the issue of maintaining current levels of naval patrols and not allowing political instability in other regions to suck in counter-piracy resources has already been raised with UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon by senior UN agency insiders. Nevertheless, industry security experts concede they expect to see a reduction in naval assets being made available over the next few months due to Libya.
These issues are all set to be picked up behind the scenes this week at the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee in London as industry officials and IMO insiders seek a diplomatic solution to the crisis of dwindling political will.
Mr Mitropoulos has sought direct support from Mr Ban on the issue in a bid to add some heavyweight political pressure where necessary. Government representatives at the MSC should be prepared for a barrage of unambiguous letters and direct appeals for everything from naval assets to ensuring vessels under their flag are simply complying with best management practice.
The list of laggard states on piracy are well known at the IMO and the secretary-general has promised an increasingly direct approach to tackling the issue.
Whether this renewed diplomatic assault will be enough to translate political rhetoric into action remains to be seen, but Mr Mitropoulos is optimistic support can be rallied.
“Whether we like it or not, we have put on our shoulders the responsibility for orchestrating the response,” said Mr Mitropoulos.
“It is essential we make every possible effort to translate that political will into governments making available resources in the form of naval vessels and aircraft and of better co-operation than is being done today.”