Is it right to pay ransoms to pirates? That’s a question that comes up for discussion in Whitehall next week, when David Cameron’s piracy ransoms task force meets to discuss how to stop the lucrative flow of pieces of eight into Somalia in recent years. Chaired by two civil service mandarins, one from the Foreign Office and one from the Home Office, along with representatives of 14 other seafaring nations, the task force was tasked in February with looking into ways of banning ransom payments altogether, or, failing that, dramatically curbing them. As the PM put it, “they only ensure that crime pays.”
So indeed they do. It’s estimated that Somali pirates have raked in at least a couple of hundred million dollars in the last four years. And while there isn’t much hard proof that it benefits Islamist groups like al-Shabaab, it’s clearly not a good idea to have a country where all the richest people – and thereby the main role models for the younger generation – have got where they are today by armed hostage-taking.
Yet as Mr Cameron has been made acutely aware, the pirates aren’t the only ones making a living from their activities. Numerous other governments point out that Britain is also doing rather nicely from the trade, thanks to its historic status as one of the world’s major centres for maritime legal, insurance and security services. No matter where it is on the high seas, when a ship gets hijacked, wrecked or has a spillage, it’s usually a firm of London lawyers who get the call to sort out the mess. Most of the private security firms who then negotiate the ransoms with the pirates are run by ex-British military officers. And so, too, are many of the firms out in Kenya that actually arrange the drops of cash by plane or boat. The whole thing from start to finish, in other words, is UK Plc.
As the task force weighs up the options, however, they may like to consider what happens in hijack cases when, as per Mr Cameron’s wish, a ransom payment is not forthcoming. A grim, but perhaps rather instructive example, is the Iceberg 1, which, as we reported last week, has been languishing for nearly two and a half years now off the Somali coast. Its owners, a Dubai-based shipping company, appear not to have had kidnap and ransom insurance, and as a result, there is simply no money to pay the pirates’ demands.
In theory, this should have been a case to back to the no-ransoms argument. For logically, if there is no realistic prospect of cash forthcoming, one would imagine that sooner or later, the pirates would have simply given up on a bad job and let the hostages go. That is not how it has worked out. Instead the hijackers, having relatively little to lose, have stuck quite literally to their guns and held out, hoping that someone, somewhere, will eventually cough up. In the meantime, the ship’s crew have suffered an ordeal that sounds like it is torn from the pages of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Driven slowly mad by prolonged captivity and lack of proper food, two of them are thought to have committed suicide already. Frankly, I am surprised it’s not more. When I was held hostage by Somali pirates myself back in 2008, I was nearly going nuts after just six weeks.
The shipping industry, which strongly opposes a ban on ransom payments, has cited the Iceberg I as a warning to the task force of what will happen if a ransom ban were to go ahead. Yes, in the very long-term, it could in theory have some effect. But in the short term, they argue, it would leave numerous ships and sailors that have already been hijacked very dangerously in the lurch. At present, the pirates currently hold some 177 sailors hostage – down from the 700 peak of two years ago, but still a lot. Were a ban to come into effect, their captors would be unlikely to just meekly give them up. Instead they could become chips in a very high stakes game of bluff and double-bluff, as the pirates sought to test the resolve of the international community to hold its line. At best, it would condemn such hostages to far longer in captivity. At worst, it might lead to them being executed one by one. And afterwards, it is the shipping industry, not lawmakers, who have to deal with crews’ relatives.
One might, of course, argue that any hijackers who carried out such acts would face stern action from the international anti-piracy fleets. That, however, is unlikely, given the fleet’s general aversion to resolving hijacks by force. The Iceberg 1 is a case in point: it has been stuck under the navies’ noses for 2.5 years without any operation being attempted to free them. Which brings us to the nub of the argument about when it is right to pay ransoms. While it might make sense not to cough up in kidnaps on the UK mainland, where the presence of a proper police force and CCTV everywhere makes it very difficult for a kidnapper to get away with it in the first place, that same logic cannot really apply in the sea off Somalia, where Britannia no longer rules the waves and nor does anyone else. Talking tough on not paying money to foreign vagabonds was all very well back in the days of the British Empire, when the Royal Navy would be deployed for a bit of robust gunboat diplomacy. But without that implicit threat, it’s not much more than bluster.
Similar points have been made to the task force in recent months by Inter-tanko, an association representing tanker ship owners, whose crews have suffered their fair share of hijackings. As Michele White, the organisation general counsel, puts it: “The TOR (terms of reference) for this task force assume that a ransom ban will persuade pirates to stop attacking vessels – that assumes we are dealing with rational people. We are not. They will simply become more violent in order to exert more pressure to extort payment. The Iceberg 1 is a shocking example of what happens when no one pays.”
The likes of Inter-tanko are somewhat surprised that the task force has even been convened, given that a Foreign Affairs Committee report on piracy in January had already concluded the Government should not “make it more difficult for companies to secure the safe release of their crew by criminalising the payment of ransoms”. They were also rather bemused by a recent Chatham House report that the government commissioned in tandem with the task force, which came up with some equally unpalatable alternatives to ransoms. One would be a prisoner swap scheme, whereby hostages would be exchanged for imprisoned pirates. Another was to keep the level of ransom down by appointing authorised negotiators on the pirate side. While the report is not actually recommending either option, it is certainly what one might call “Blue Skies” thinking.
Already, though, the anti-ransom camp is already having some effect. Part of the reason for Mr Cameron’s decision to convene the task force was pressure from the US, which, in keeping with its general anxiety about Islamic terrorism, wants a tough line on ransom cash going into countries like Somalia. Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, welcomed the move when the Prime Minister announced it in February, saying a ban would “eliminate the profit motive and prevent the illicit flow of money and its corrosive effects.”
But Washington doesn’t need Mr Cameron’s help that much. It has also ready issued prohibition orders of its own criminalising the payment of ransoms to named pirates and terrorist groups in Somalia, which, like most US sanctions orders, also cover any British banks that do business in the States. As a result, most British banks are now scared to facilitate ransom cash transfers in case they fall foul of the US orders. Which means that British lawyers and negotiators who suddenly need to find $500,000 to get a boat freed are no longer able to go to the likes of Barclays or HSBC, and instead have to seek the cash from banks in places like the Middle East.
“The banks we used to go to won’t touch that kind of business any more because of the US pressure, which means we have to use all kinds of complicated routes to get the cash instead, often with banks we wouldn’t normally deal with,” one lawyer told me. “It’s pointless because it doesn’t stop us paying the ransoms, which is still legal here in the UK. All it does is just make it a hell of a lot more hassle. Raising $500,000 in cash and keeping it safe is enough of a headache at the best of times, never mind having to do it with foreign banks.”
The fact that such practical difficulties are springing up already is one reason why the shipping industry would rather not have had to worry about arguing its case before a government task force as well in recent months. Especially when, at the end of the day, the task force has no real legal teeth anyway. All it will do is recommend “a set of policy options that will be presented to the wider international community to take forward”. Which, in less polite language, means that it will be presented to no one in particular, and will most likely gather dust on a shelf.
The real mystery, therefore, is why it was commissioned in the first place. It’s worth remembering that when he made the announcement, Cameron was presiding over the London Somali conference, the latest of 15 successive attempts over the last two decades to give the country a functioning government again. Some within the shipping industry now suspect the task force was intended as nothing more than an eye-catching announcement. Given the plight of the likes of the Iceberg 1, one can’t help wondering if the money might have been better spent on contributing towards a ransom…