jeudi 29 octobre 2009

“Is Seychelles turning a blind eye to pirates?” What Rot!!

The Seychelles Nation of 29.10.2009 featured an article by which “the government has denied claims in a British newspaper that Seychelles has become “popular with pirates”…. and has reached a deal with them on their activities. The claims were made in The Independent yesterday in an article linked to the disappearance of a yacht with two British sailors on board after it left Seychelles last Thursday.” The article of The Independent claimed that the Seychelles have “deals with the pirates which would allow them to operate as long as they do not affect the interests of the Seychelles”.

This was troubling news indeed, to hear that the Government of my beloved country would be courting the very criminals who, since 2008, are posing a serious threat to our sovereignty, security and the two principal pillars of our economy- Fishing and Tourism!

Having read both the original article from ‘The Independent” (http://www /news/ world/africa/is-seychelles-turning-a-blind-eye-to-pirates-1810496.html ) of 28.10.2009 and the denial of “The Nation”, ( and having some spare time on my hands, after commenting on the article on “The Independent’s” website, I made a quick research to find out more behind the report of The Independent’s Defence Correspondent, Kim Sengupta.

First and foremost, it would seem to me that Kim Sengupta was essentially commenting on the reports “from security companies” to the effect “that the government of the Seychelles has done deals with the pirates which would allow them to operate as long as they do not affect the interests of the Seychelles”

Sengupta’s article referred to “Iderat Maritime, a leading shipping security company which lists Major-General Julian Thompson, the former commander of the Royal Marines, as one of its directors, (stating) that the government (of Seychelles) has probably reached an "understanding" with the pirates. Information from within Somalia appears to confirm this. ……..Christopher Ledger, vice-chairman of Iderat Maritime, said: "These reports have been quite persistent and need to be looked at. We are not saying that the abduction of [Paul and Rachel Chandler, the British couple who were kidnapped by Somali pirates last week] had anything to do with any such links."

Sengupta’s article does mention the Seychelles’ Government denials of any deals with, and its efforts in taking action against, pirates, as well as presenting statements from Mr. Joel Morgan - Seychelles Minister for Environment, Natural Resources and Transport (also the official head of the Seychelles Committee to coordinate the national response to piracy, after the capture by Somali pirates of 10 Seychellois in two separate 2009 incidents on boats within Seychelles’ territorial waters) to the effect that "the Seychelles Peoples' Defence Force will act as a deterrence force to any approaching pirate vessels, and our forces will complement the Seychelles and international naval forces in the region. We have 1.4 million square miles of ocean and for this reason it is a greater challenge to guarantee the security of our waters alone."

To its credit, the article also added that “the most direct sign of Western involvement is the stationing of the 36ft MQ-9 Reaper drones, the size of jets. The aircraft are fitted with infrared, laser and radar targeting, can fly up to 16 hours and are capable of carrying a dozen guided bombs and missiles”

But the seed of doubt was by then already sown. The damage was then already done.

In my view, Kim Sengupta cannot pretend to be much of a Defence Correspondent to remain satisfied with such outrageous and unverified claims, so deeply wounding to the pride and integrity of a nation caught in a David and Goliath battle to secure its sovereignty and protect the lifeblood of its economy.

History is full of occasions where “La Raison d’Etat” demanded of Rulers and Governments that they enter into secret agreements, sometimes with their known and worst enemies, in order to secure some national short-term goal.

Official denial of an uncovered and indelicate national misdeed, is also not an alien component of contemporary diplomacy.

Sengupta, as a journalist, must know these and must have surely intended the article of ‘The Independent’ to be more than a ripple in that pond of public opinion over the reported capture by Somali pirates of the British couple, Paul and Rachel Chandler, aboard their private yacht, on 23rd October, on their way to Tanzania from Seychelles.

Nothing in the article suggested, however, an invitation to investigate both the claims of underhand deals and the integrity of Iderat Maritime and its motivation to come out with such claims.

Sengupta must also know that the new piracy scourge off the coast of Somalia has moved, since 2008, from the horn of Africa to the western corner of the Indian Ocean, at the northern mouth of the Mozambique Channel, preying on the India-Asia-South Africa and Red Sea, Arabian sea- bound shipping.

World opinion has been formed to the idea that the prevailing chaos in what is said to be lawless Somalia, combined with impoverished fishermen along the Somali coast, who are disgruntled over foreign unauthorised fishing within the Somali territorial waters, rag-tag rebels and other armed bandits, to induce the coastal population to turn to the more lucrative and immediate rewards from piracy on undefended shipping off their coast.

We are expected to understand that some Somali, tired of squatting in the dust and squalor of endemic poverty, suddenly woke up one day to throw off their blood-soaked coats of lawlessness and decided to be smarter and prey on International Shipping! Without some other hand quietly pushing them along and gathering its share of the rich booty from ransoms!??

From 2005 to 2007, there were only some 6 reported attacks.
Since 2008, there have been 116 reported attacks on ships from some 50 different countries, in the area of the West Indian Ocean, attributed to Somali pirates.
At least 100 of these attacks were successful. These have been potentially life-threatening to some 5,700 crew and passengers of the ships targeted.
Indeed, 4 crew members and 19 pirates have died in separate incidents directly resulting from pirates’ attack on shipping since 2008.
The attacks have also been rewarding, from the view of the pirates, having allowed them to reap over US$23M in paid ransom for ship and crew / passengers from at least 17 of the 100 successful attacks. (Discounting the US$3M MV Sirius Star ransom money lost when the 5 pirates drowned with their loot!).

This is, by all standards, big money with an appeal powerful enough to roust the nearest impoverished fisherman–cum-rebel-cum bandit to turn away from internecine squabbles and futures without promise. It is also enough money to allow those operating behind the scenes to source and procure the necessary technology, arms and other tools and have their minions more effectively track and intercept shipping on the open sea.

The situation is rendered more galling when the world soon understood that national and international statutes are largely ineffective to legally deal with the pirates.
Rule-of-law nations have to be resigned before a bunch of bandits who openly flaunt international laws and laugh in the face of their eventual captors and prosecutors, certain in the knowledge that a law-abiding nation is absolutely hog-tied by its own laws against taking any meaningful punitive legal actions against them.
Rules of Engagement of the International Coalition Task Force and the safety of hostages preclude most military actions against pirates who proceed with their captured ships and crews right before the eyes and under the guns of the naval force set to intercept them!

To date, only a sprinkling of the at least 98 pirates captured have been successfully prosecuted, when Kenya sentenced 10 pirates to 7 years’ sentences over the January 2006 attack on the dhow Safina al Bisarat and the intervention of USS Winston Churchill. Most of the others are released after capture, as underlined over the MV Front Ardenne incident of 19th April 2009 when NATO (Canada & US) warships intercepted pirates, boarded their boats, questioned and released them. "The pirates' release underscores the difficulties navies have in fighting rampant piracy off the coast of lawless Somalia. Most of the time foreign navies simply disarm and release the pirates they catch due to legal complications and logistical difficulties in transporting pirates and witnesses to court" (source:Yahoo.Com news AP of 19.04.09)

The demands of International Trade and national economies requiring free and secure passage along a strategic shipping route compelled governments affected by this new threat to form an international force of armed naval patrols and surveillance of the zone off the Horn of Africa.

The Combined Task Force 150 of August 2008 established its Maritime Security Patrol Area in the strategic Gulf of Aden, followed by the UN resolution 1838 of 6.10.2008 authorising the use of military force against the pirates.
Feeling the heat from the international navies, the pirates shifted the predatory range away from the Gulf of Aden to the northern mouth of the Mozambique Channel.

Seychelles is a small country comprising some 115 islands of cumulated 450km², just off the normal Mozambique Channel shipping routes. Its territorial waters cover an expanse of ocean some 2.2million km², stretched roughly over 1400kms from its northernmost Bird and Denis islands to its south-westernmost Aldabra Atoll. Most of the islands are remote from the main island of Mahe. The nearest Amirantes group to the South West is at 250km across open sea.

When the pirates shifted their predation away from the international naval patrols in the Gulf of Aden, Seychelles found itself caught unprepared, with pirates marauding on its very doorstep and sometimes moving right inside its house with absolute impunity.

Clearly, the pirates pose a significant threat to Seychelles
The 25th March and 1st April capture, well into our territorial waters, of the Serenity and the Indian Explorer, with a combined 10 Seychellois crew, was closely followed by the 13th and 26th April 2009-thwarted attacks on the French purse seiner Le Drennec and the Italian cruise ship MsC Melody.

The International Coalition Task Force seemed to have quickly appreciated the new shift of pirates’ activity and new risks to Seychelles. From the mid 2009, in part from Seychelles’- driven efforts to harness international help to safeguard its national integrity, there has been intense co-operation between the International Coalition Task Force and the Seychelles authorities.

It is in this context that a new and closer co-operation came into being between the Seychelles Coast Guard and the International Coalition Task Force, to beef up the country’s coast guard’s response and interception capability as well as establishing aerial and surface surveillance base from the main island of Mahe; that in mid-April 09, France offered a falcon-50 from its navy to help in anti-piracy surveillance of the Seychelles territorial waters; that Seychelles accepted armed French military personnel on French purse seiners operating from Victoria (Mahe) and is receptive to similar arrangements with regard to Spanish purse Seiners, should the Spanish Government grant such approval; that the USA is stationing the 36ft MQ-9 Reaper drones in the Seychelles; and that the EU is investing to bolster the nations’ legal infrastructure to effectively secure conviction, after due, and internationally recognised and accepted process, of pirates arrested within Seychelles’ territorial waters.
Little Seychelles would be hard put indeed, to hoodwink the intelligence services of its powerful partners, in receiving their assistance to secure its sovereignty against piracy while at the same time engaging in secret deals with the very pirates its partners are helping it against!

It may not be entirely unreasonable to question the manner in which the Seychelles arranged the release of 23 persons, allegedly from Somalia, arrested on open seas, by the International Coalition Task Force in mid 2009, on strong suspicion of piracy.
After some weeks’ detention in Seychelles and initiation of prosecution formalities, the office of the Seychelles’ Attorney General, concluded that in the absence of irrefutable evidence to support the charges, they had a weak case to prosecute and secure conviction. There was then, little other choice but to release the 23 accused.
While Seychelles was initiating the prosecution of the 23 accused, the mind of the nation was turned more towards the plight of our 10 compatriots being held hostage in Somalia since April 2009 and the reported negotiations, under the direct involvement of Minister Joel Morgan, underway with the pirates for their release.

All things comparable, to have 10 Seychellois out of a population of 80000 held hostage would be like having 7,639 British citizens (UK population estimate July 2009 61,113,205 - – People) under Somali pirates’ control. For any self-respecting nation, this is an intolerable situation!!
Given that the whole country was behind the government for the negotiated safe return of our compatriots home, it would have been political suicide for the Seychelles authorities to opt for secret deals with the pirates that could potentially jeopardise the release of our compatriots, compromise both our standing before our international partners as well as our capability in handling future situations in this volatile counter-piracy arena!

For those of us not privy to the details of what have been reported as sensitive negotiations, we may raise our eyebrows at what seems to be Minister Morgan’s amateurish, handling of the matter, if however forgivable given that our country has never had to be involved in such delicate and potentially dangerous negotiations.

In hindsight, perhaps it would have been better if the Seychelles’ authorities had allowed the negotiations and subsequent handing – over of both pirates and our compatriots, by internationally recognised professional negotiators and through third party humanitarian organisations. In this way, at least, there would have been little cause for the reported 29th August spat with the Puntland authorities over the release of pirates and hostages, and much less accusations of ill-disguised swap of pirates against hostages, fuelling suspicion of secret ransoms and underhand deals!

These then are the facts of piracy off the Seychelles.
These then are what Kim Sengupta missed to point out! Perhaps from ignorance! Perhaps from a lack of professionalism! Perhaps from an overdose of cheap journalism!

A small island nation which has its economy in a perhaps unhealthy dependence on tourism from mostly Western European countries, suddenly finds its name ingloriously bandied along by the “Western” media, in an unsavoury association with the greatest part of each pirates’ attack on shipping in the Western Indian Ocean, particularly since the start of the current 2009-2010 favourable monsoon season.

“The impression of the Seychelles is of idyllic tropical islands, untouched by the troubles of a turbulent region, and highly popular with upmarket Western tourists.” as Kim Sengupta rightly summarised Seychelles, is now indelibly and quite undeservedly, linked, at least in the subliminal awareness of the global tourism market, to piracy and risk.!

Kim Segupta, perhaps unknowingly, merely chose to drive in the fire – hardened spit of unverified and unproven underhanded deals of the Seychelles Government with the pirates, with the suggestion that our government is therefore carelessly heightening the risk! This in itself is a sin against the people of Seychelles that will require a considerable effort to be forgiven!