EU NAVFOR Spokesman John Harbour: Somali Pirate Issue to Be Solved by Stabilization on the Ground

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Bulgaria: EU NAVFOR Spokesman John Harbour: Somali Pirate Issue to Be Solved by Stabilization on the Ground

By Ivan Dikov and Phil Davies

Exclusive interview of Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency) with Commander John Harbour, Spokesperson for the EU NAVFOR Somalia, the EU naval forces in charge acting against the Somali pirates in Operation Atalanta.

Commander John Harbour was commissioned into the Royal Navy in 1973 and has served as a Warfare Officer and Logistics officer in Minesweepers, Frigates and Destroyers throughout his career. His last involvement with the Region was as part of the Royal Naval task force to clear Mines from the Red Sea in 1986. Commander Harbour is now the official Spokesperson for EU NAVFOR -European Union Naval Force Somalia - Operation Atalanta.

Would you please give us an update on the position concerning the two recently kidnapped vessels, Asian Glory and The St James Park. We are, of course, particularly interested in the welfare of the Bulgarian sailors in both crews, but what is the overall situation now?

The situation with the Asian Glory and The St James Park is that they are now anchored off the coast of Somalia near the port of Hobyo. The last statement from the owners was that all the crew are safe and well. Asian Glory did leave her anchorage for a couple of days but has returned to the Hobyo area once more.

Given the situation you describe, what in your opinion is likely to happen next? Is there an overall pattern to negotiations with the pirates, or is each case to be treated on its own merits?

EU NAVFOR monitors the ships in the area but does not get involved in any negotiation with pirates. The normal pattern of events after a hijacking is for the pirates to get the ship back to their stronghold, which they have now done, and then to contact the owner with a view to opening a channel for ransom negotiations.

Who is involved in any negotiations? Is it on an international level, or governmental? What role is played by the maritime companies themselves, from owners to insurers?

As I mentioned, EU NAVFOR plays no part in negotiations with pirates. Clearly the primary responsibility in negotiations rests with the owner but who else gets involved is unclear.

EU NAVFOR is a cooperation between some eight nations, with others such as Norway lending logistical support. What is your opinion of the offer made by Bulgaria to deploy their frigate Intrepid? Do you welcome such offers? Or is it possible they might disrupt the overall strategy?

EU NAVFOR works closely with many other organisations and navies in the area and cooperates with them through active participation in a meeting called the Shared Awareness and De-confliction (SHADE) meeting.

This has helped to introduce an extraordinary amount of cooperation between the EU, NATO, Combined Maritime Forces and also some non aligned countries as China, Russia, India, Malaysia and Japan that would have been unthinkable one year ago. Norway is a non-aligned country and has decided to join the EU NAVFOR and her presence is hugely welcomed.

Any offer from any country, especially an EU country, in the fight against piracy is welcome, so any suggestion that Bulgaria might deploy a ship is very good news. We must not forget that Bulgaria already supports EU NAVFOR with a Bulgarian Naval Officer working in Operational Planning within the EU NAVFOR Headquarters in Northwood, near London.

If the Bulgarian offer - or any other country's - were accepted, who would pay for the contribution? A Bulgarian naval source (Rear Admiral Manushev) has estimated a turn of duty of 2 months could cost up to 3 million Euro.

Responsibility for the cost of providing an asset rests with the contributing country. If the ship had specialist equipment or personnel onboard then that could be claimed back - for example the specialist medical unit embarked onboard the Italian ship Etna is eligible for such a claim.

Otherwise, personnel salaries and ships are paid from the contributing country. Accommodation in Northwood and cost of travelling is normally picked up by the EU.

The year 2010 did not start well, with four vessels being hijacked in one week. Does this imply an escalation in the pirates' operations?

The number of attacks has been rising steadily in the last two years. In 2008 there were approximately 125 attacks with about 50 hijackings. In 2009 there were double the number of attacks, about 250, with about 50 hijackings so you will see that since EU NAVFOR arrived in the area (and working closely with coalition partners) the number of attacks has doubled but the number of successful attacks has stayed the same.

According to a reputable news agency, some 13 ships are currently being held, including one – Win Far 161, a Taiwanese tuna boat - since April 2009. What is the overall situation with these cases?

The numbers of vessels held along the Somali coast is 9 with 229 hostages (to date February 1, 2010). The slightly larger number of vessels listed may include some smaller vessels such as fishing dhows that we have no independent confirmation about. The overall situation is that negotiations are ongoing with all vessels.

There have been some success stories recently - for example, the Chinese secured the release of 25 nationals, by paying a reported ransom of about £2.5 million. Who actually pays these ransoms when negotiations eventually succeed? Governments are understandably reluctant to give in to these illegal acts, but the ransom money is usually a significant sum.

As EU NAVFOR never gets involved in ransom negotiations, it is impossible to say who pays and how much individual governments get involved. You would have to speak to the owners.

Speaking of ransom money, where does it go? There are press reports of the pirates even setting up their own stock exchange, trading in cash, goods and weapons. Are these accounts accurate?

I do not have information on this and any response would be speculation on what I have also read in the newspapers.

There are also reports that much of the ransom money is flowing into the Kenya real estate market, both for laundering and investment. Again, are these reports credible?

Once again, any response I gave would be pure speculation from the press reports that I have read.

The pirate groups seem to be highly organised - even sophisticated - gangs, working in many cases with ruthless efficiency. How can they be so efficient in targeting and seizing victims, knowing there is so much active surveillance on your part?

The pirate groups have been active in that area for some time so they have a great deal of experience. They appear to be well organized, they are ruthless but not too sophisticated or efficient.

The sums of money involved are clearly a great incentive for relatively young men who use small skiffs with Kalashnikovs and rocket propelled grenades to take control of innocent merchantmen. Because EU NAVFOR has been so successful in the Gulf of Aden, the pirates are having to move much further away from the coast operating sometimes over 1 000 miles from Somalia to catch their prey.

They are determined individuals so even with the presence of many warships in the area they will continue to pirate. You must look upon the warships in the area as policemen of the seas trying to capture criminals (pirates are criminals). Every country in the world has police forces but no matter how good they are, crime continues.

How many of your ships are active at any one time? Any how large a sea area are they attempting to cover?

EU NAVFOR operates between 6 and 12 ships and 4 maritime patrol aircraft working with other organisations such as NATO and CMF as well as independent nations such as China, Russia, India, Japan, Malaysia. On average there are between 25 - 30 warships operating in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. It is a huge space of over one and a half million square miles.

How many merchant ships are typically passing through these waters on a regular basis?

Between 25 - 30, 000 per year.

As was apparently the case with The St James Park - some of the vessels sailing in these waters decline your protection. Why would they do that, and increase the risks to their vessels, cargoes and crews?

Every owner and Ship's Master makes his decisions on conforming to advice and Best Management Practice in their own way.

Do you in any case have the resources to protect and escort all vessels requesting your assistance?

EU NAVFOR’s primary mandate is to provide direct protection to ships of the World Food Programme (WFP) and to date, every WFP ship escorted by EU NAVFOR has reached its destination unharmed.

The other mandates are to protect vulnerable vessels (very slow or extraordinary cargo) and also to deter and disrupt piracy. Within resource constraints our objectives are achieved but, as shown in a previous response regarding policing of the seas, it is impossible to stop EVERY hijacking.

Are there other practical steps being taken to thwart the gangs, apart from the naval patrols?

The only way to stop piracy will be to have a stable Somalia where police forces operate properly ashore and a coastguard and Somali navy operate at sea. Information from Somali communities along the shore is that some Elders are doing their part to turn these young men away from piracy which is now, with the huge sums of money involved, starting to introduce alcohol, drugs and prostitution along the coast with the effect of destabilising community life.

One observation frequently made is that your efforts are hampered by the need to observe and respect the human rights of the pirates. What is the balance of rights between those gangs - who are committing illegal acts - and those of the crews and individuals who become the victims of these acts? Would you like to see a more robust policy being adopted?

EU NAVFOR has fairly well defined (laws) within democratic principles that are strictly adhered to. Acting outside the law would make the lawmakers as barbaric as the pirates.

It is frustrating to the rest of the world watching events unfold but, unfortunately, the Media report only hijackings and do not give air time to the number of pirates that do get captured and the number of pirate activities that are disrupted.

At least 400 pirates have been disrupted in the course of sailing the seas looking for prey. 270 have been apprehended and are either waiting trial or are serving jail sentences. A number have been killed. The use of "proportionate" force is always available to military commanders when required.

Is there, despite the current "rules of engagement" you have already mentioned, a military solution to the Somali pirate issue? How much could the navy do? Do you foresee a situation where the Somali pirates should be attacked and destroyed, or should the navy just guard the merchant ships as is now the case?

At sea the navies are deterring and disrupting piracy where disrupting means finding the pirate skiffs before they attack merchant vessels, arresting them, destroying their equipment and boats and returning them to Somalia. It takes the suspected pirates time, effort and more resources to recommence piracy in this instance.

As far as attacking pirates ashore, it must be remembered that the coastline of Somalia is over 3000 Km long and there are hundreds if not thousands of tiny fishing skiffs where the majority are probably innocent fishermen.

How does a military force differentiate between innocent fishermen and pirates who, themselves, come from the fishing communities? EU NAVFOR has a job to do at sea and does this most effectively by reducing considerably the number of hijackings in the area.

The solution ashore is for a stable Somalia to be built and a viable Police force, Coast Guard and Navy to be formed. The EU is supporting many initiatives to try to achieve this.

What are your longer-term hopes and ambitions for resolving this problem of organised piracy? How can this be done, logistically and in terms of affordability? Will the problem ever be completely eradicated?

The longer term hopes are that Somalia will become a more stable country with a viable police force, Army, Coast Guard and Navy. The international community is contributing in its own way to anti piracy and as long as there is a considerable threat to international shipping in the Somali basin then some form of protection will be required.

Piracy has existed for hundreds of years and will always exist. The aim will be to reduce it considerably and to a level no greater than experienced in the rest of the world.

Following on from your remarks, how is this pioneering joint naval operation going to affect the fashioning of Common European Defense and Security Policy? Is this the birth of the EU as a coordinated military superpower?

This is the first Naval operation under the European Security and Defence Policy but in the last 10 years there have been many military operations on land. Clearly the EU has both financial power and political power in the membership of 27 nations who work together towards a common goal of peace and stability.

I think that the term "military superpower" would be overstating the case and the coming together of 27 Member States to uphold law, order and stability is different from the "superpower" status of, say, the USA.

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Tags: kidnappings, ransom, St James Park, Asian Glory, Bulgarian Navy, John Harbour, EU NAVFOR, somalia pirates
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