Rumors of the demise of maritime piracy in the 19th century were a tad premature. The scourge is so resurgent that the International Maritime Board, founded by the International Chamber of Commerce in 1981, is forced to broadcast daily piracy reports to shipping companies by satellite from its Kuala Lumpur Piracy Reporting Center, established in 1992 and partly funded by maritime insurers.
The reports carry this disclaimer: "For statistical purposes, the IMB defines piracy and armed robbery as: An act of boarding or attempting to board any ship with the apparent intent to commit theft or any other crime and with the apparent intent or capability to use force in the furtherance of that act. This definition thus covers actual or attempted attacks whether the ship is berthed, at anchor or at sea. Petty thefts are excluded, unless the thieves are armed."
The 1994 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea defines piracy as "any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed by individuals (borne aboard a pirate vessel) for private ends against a private ship or aircraft (the victim vessel)." When no "pirate vessel" is involved -- for instance, when criminals embark on a ship and capture it -- the legal term is hijacking.
On July 8, seven pirates, armed with long knives attacked an officer of a cargo ship berthed in Chittagong port in Bangladesh, snatched his gold chain and watch and dislocated his arm. This was the third such attack since the ship dropped anchor in the port.
Three days earlier, in Indonesia, similarly armed pirates had escaped with the crew's valuables, having tied the hands of the duty officer. Pirates in small boats stole anodes from the stern of a bulk carrier in Bangladesh. Others, in Indonesia, absconded with a life raft.
The pirates of Guyana are either unlucky or untrained. They were consistently scared off by flares hurled at them and alarms set by vigilant hands on deck. A Colombian band, riding a high-speed boat, attempted to board a container ship. Warring parties in Somalia hijacked yet another ship last month.
A particularly egregious case -- and signs of growing sophistication and coordinated action -- is described in the July 1-8 report of the IMB: "Six armed pirates boarded a chemical tanker from a small boat and stole ship's stores. Another group of pirates broke in to engine room and stole spare parts. Thefts took place in spite of the ship engaging three shore security watchmen."
Over the past few years, incidents of piracy have been reported in India, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, Nigeria, Brazil, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela.
According to the International Chamber of Commerce Year 2001 Piracy Report, more than 330 attacks on seafaring vessels were reported last year -- down by a quarter compared to 2000 but 10 percent higher than 1999 and four times the 1991 figure. Piracy rose 40 percent between 1998 and 1999.
Sixteen ships -- double the number in 2000 -- were captured and taken over. Eighty-seven attacks were reported during the first quarter of this year, up from 68 in the corresponding period last year. Seven of these were hijackings, compared to only one in the first quarter of 2001. Nine of every 10 hijacked ships are ultimately recovered, often with the help of the IMB.
Many masters and ship owners do not report piracy for fear of delays due to protracted investigations, increased insurance premiums, bad publicity, and stifling red tape. The number of unreported attacks in 1999 was estimated by the World Maritime Piracy Report to be 130.
According to The Economist, the International Maritime Organization believes that half of all incidents remain unreported. Still, increased patrols and international collaboration among law enforcement agencies dented the clear upward trend in maritime crime -- even in the piracy capital, Indonesia.
The number of incidents in the pirate-infested Malacca Straits dropped from 75 to 17 last year, though the number of crew "kidnap and ransom" operations, especially in Aceh, has increased. Owners usually pay the "reasonable" amounts demanded -- around $100,000 per ship. Contrary to folklore, most ships are attacked while at anchor.
Twenty-one people, including passengers, were killed last year and a total of 210 people were taken hostage. Assaults involving guns were up 50 percent to 73, those involving mere knives down by a quarter to 105. Piracy seems to ebb and flow with the business cycles of the host economies. The Asian crisis, triggered by the freefall of the Thai baht, gave a boost to East Asian maritime robbers. So did the debt crises of Latin America a decade earlier. Drug transporters, armed with light aircraft and high-speed motorboats, sometimes double as pirates during the dry season of crop growth.
Pirates endanger ship and crew. But they often cause collateral damage as well. Pirates have been known to dump noxious cargo into the sea, or tie up the crew and let an oil tanker steam ahead, its navigational aids smashed, or tamper with substances dangerous to themselves and to others, or cast crew and passengers adrift in tiny rafts with little food and water.
Many ship owners have resorted to installing on-board satellite tracking systems, such as Shiploc, and aircraft-like "black boxes." A bulletproof life vest, replete with an integral jagged edged knife, was on display in the millennium exhibition at the Millennium Dome two years ago. The International Maritime Organization is considering compelling ship-owners to tag their vessels with visibly embossed numbers in compliance with the Safety of Life at Sea Convention.
The IMB also advises shipping companies to closely examine the papers of crew and masters, thousands of whom carry forged documents. In 54 maritime administrations surveyed last year by the Seafarers' International Research Center, Cardiff University in Wales, more than 12,000 cases of forged certificates of competency were unearthed.
Many issuing authorities are either careless or venal or both. The IMB recently accused the Coast Guard Office of Puerto Rico of issuing 500 such "suspicious" certificates. The Chinese customs and navy -- especially along the southern coast -- have often been accused of working hand in glove with pirates.
Part 2 of this analysis is scheduled for movement Monday.
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