UK blocks sanctions against suspected Somali pirates

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website


Legal problems are still hindering the effort to deal with Somali pirates.

Image caption, The SPS Victoria fired warning shots to prevent the pirates fleeing

It's emerged that the British government is blocking a move at the UN to take action against two suspected pirate organisers.

This is despite tough British language condemning pirates and the paying of ransom, and its contribution of warships to the anti-pirate operation run by the EU, known as EU Navfor.

The EU operation has itself been reduced to near farce in the last week, with a Spanish ship having to send pirates back to Somalia, after catching them red-handed, because the problems of prosecuting them are too great.

A look first at the British position.

The Foreign Office in London confirmed a story in the Financial Times that the UK is blocking an American proposal to add the names of two alleged pirate leaders to a UN sanctions list.

The British action, known as a technical hold, was taken back in April and has not been lifted.

The reason, I am told, is that the paying of ransom is not a criminal offence in the UK. This has made it possible for ransom to be paid for dozens of ships and their crews, and many of the negotiations go through London.

But, the argument is, if the suspected pirate leaders, named by the Foreign Office as Abshir Abdillahi and Mohamed Abdi Garaad (with numerous variants) are put on the UN sanctions list, then ransom in effect becomes an offence in the UK and might put an end to many ransom deals.

Doing business

According to British officials Abdillahi and Garaad are "high-profile pirate leaders involved in hijacks in the Gulf of Aden".

Indeed, they are alleged to be so influential that almost all ransoms are said to involve them in some way.

Britain has applied the technical hold because it is under pressure from ship-owners and seafarers who prefer the present system. This system is basically one of doing business, not waging war. The ship is taken, negotiations take place, the money is paid and the ship and its crew are released.

For example, on 29 July the Maltese-flagged merchant vessel MV Frigia was freed with its crew of 21. It had been hijacked on 23 March. It is presumed that money changed hands.

Gavin Simmons of the London Chamber of Shipping told the FT: "To discontinue payments or make them illegal would jeopardise the safety of seafarers held captive."

This is something of an embarrassment to the British government. Foreign Office officials told me it was being discussed "at the highest level" and something might develop "in the next few months".

Warning shots

But even the at-sea operations against the pirates are still bedevilled by inhibitions caused by the law.

Image caption, The pirates were arrested, and weapons were found on the skiff

Early on the morning of 3 August, the Spanish ship SPS Victoria responded to a distress call from the MV Bow Saga, a Norwegian chemical tanker, that she was under attack in the Gulf of Aden.

The Bow Saga reported that a pirate skiff with seven people on board had shot at the bridge, damaging the windows. The ship carried out evasive manoeuvring and deployed fire hoses.

The Victoria already had a helicopter airborne and was able to respond within 10 minutes. The pirates broke off and tried to flee but the Victoria fired warning shots, first from the helicopter and then from the warship and the pirates stopped.

Weapons were found on the skiff.

However, EU Navfor has now reported: "The seven individuals apprehended have been returned to Somalia."

It stated that "due to the legal framework and timeliness encompassing piracy and criminal activity at sea, the prosecution of the seven individuals in this specific case could not be initiated with confidence."

That encapsulates the problem. Pirates caught in the act cannot easily be prosecuted and in this case were simply sent back home.

Kenya has taken about 100 pirate suspects and has imprisoned about 20 of them. But Kenya is now threatening to withdraw its co-operation, saying that it is not being given enough support.

Both examples show how far the international community is from solving a problem that in the 19th Century would have been dealt with in somewhat shorter order.

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