Interview with Peter Jennings, Expert on Piracy

Peter Jennings, Executive Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute based in Canberra, was chair of the large counter-piracy conference in Perth in July, which aimed to examine options for producing a reduction of piracy in Somalia and beyond.

In this interview, Mr. Jennings discusses the three regions that are of most concern internationally on piracy: Southeast Asia, the Somali coast/Indian Ocean, and the Gulf of Guinea.

He says that though the causes of piracy differ in each of the three cases–as do the details, such as trade in stolen tugboats (Southeast Asia) and the siphoning of oil from captured tankers onto pirate vessels (Gulf of Guinea)–he says “the solutions probably look quite similar between the three areas, because they all involve a common set of factors that need to be addressed if counter-piracy is going to be successful.”

Some lessons that can be applied to all three areas include trust-building between countries and between agencies that actually conduct maritime security between countries, and the importance of information sharing, says Mr. Jennings.

Mr. Jennings discusses the huge impact of piracy on the Seychelles. “So much of the livelihood of the country is dependent on tourism, cruise ships visiting the country, fishing and the fishing industry,” he says, adding that those are the two things most dramatically affected as Somali piracy is pushed out further into the Indian Ocean region.

Mr. Jennings, a native of Australia, also talks about counter-piracy strategies in his home country, stressing the importance of building capacity in “states within the Indian Ocean region, and increasingly so in West Africa, in order to give those states greater capabilities to undertake counter-piracy operations themselves.”

Asked if “the good guys were winning,” Mr. Jennings responds, “I think there is cause to be positive and optimistic, but my call would be to say that the UN and the international community needs to remain seized with the issue, and not to turn attention away because we appear to have some initial success.”

The interview was conducted by Warren Hoge, IPI Senior Adviser.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Warren Hoge:Our guest in the Global Observatory today is Peter Jennings, who is the Executive Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute based in Canberra, and he was chair of the large counter-piracy conference in Perth in July, aimed at examining options for producing a reduction of piracy in Somalia and beyond.

Peter, I want to focus on the “and beyond” part of that because I know that with Somalia getting so much attention in recent years, the “and beyond” now really includes three distinct areas in the world, and I would ask you if you would talk about piracy in those three regions. What are those three regions, and what are the characteristics of the piracy in each of those regions?

Peter Jennings: Well, Warren, the three regions that are of most concern internationally on piracy are firstly, Southeast Asia; secondly, off the Somali coast and increasingly deeply into the Indian Ocean; and thirdly, the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa.

So to take those in turn, what we’ve seen in Southeast Asia in the last few years has been a significant effort on the part of regional states to coordinate counter-piracy strategies more effectively, and this has actually reduced down to well below 100 the number of pirate attacks or attempted attacks over the last 18 months or so. A key feature of piracy in Southeast Asia has been partly the result of the global financial crisis putting many ships at anchor, particularly as you approach the east of Singapore, and stationary ships–ships that are more vulnerable to crimes at sea–where people board and steal items.

There’s also a trade in tugboats, interestingly enough, wherein vessels are stolen, repainted, and put onto a second hand market for tugboats, which can be worth anything of half a million to a million dollars. That’s the prevailing problem that exists in Southeast Asia.

In Somalia, we’ve seen the number of pirate attacks drop off in recent months, but it has still been a source of major international concern. It’s largely the product of the absence of effective governance on land, and of pirates or fishing communities finding that there is a lucrative livelihood to be gained by hijacking ships and holding hostages and ships hostage at safe anchor off the Somali coast. Organized crime seems to have infiltrated a lot of the higher-end piracy activities taking place off the Somali Coast.

Thirdly, we have the Gulf of Guinea, where piracy has really been quite a sophisticated operation driven by organized crime, involving theft of oil and cargo from ships–actually taking oil and pumping them onto other vessels, and then on selling that product around the African coast, but avoiding government taxes in the process. That’s probably the area where most work is needed to develop effective strategies for the countries of the region to control this problem.

WH: Peter, as you just indicated by describing the differences in the piracy in the three areas, there probably aren’t that many commonalities in procedure in how to combat it. But I do know that after the conference in July, you came up with ten lessons–and I don’t need to have you run down all ten–but obviously you found there were some lessons to be drawn from these very different places that do have application. Could you talk about that?

PJ: Yes, Warren. I think it’s true to say that the causes of piracy differ in each of the three cases, but in fact the solutions probably look quite similar between the three areas because they all involve a common set of factors that need to be addressed if counter-piracy is going to be successful.

The first one I point to is the need for trust-building between countries and between agencies that actually conduct maritime security between countries, and that may seem obvious in one sense, but it’s also the hardest thing to do in terms of being able to getting agencies to operate effectively together. For example, to get custom departments to work with navies and to get navies to work with police enforcement are quite technical challenges of cooperation.

A second lesson which emerges is the importance of information sharing, what the military referred to situational awareness, to ensure that all of the necessary players have a common picture of what is happening at sea in the areas for which they have responsibility. There are good models in Southeast Asia where that type of maritime domain awareness has been created by multinational organizations pooling resources to provide a common picture, which is then provided to individual coast guards or navy operations.

So I would put those two examples as two of the most important things that need to be done if countries are going to counter piracy more effectively.

WH: Now one of the aspects of steps taken to combat it are that a lot of the action needs to be taken on land, not on sea, since there seems to be such a connection between people who turn to piracy, and people who have no other options to live or make money. I mean, fisherman and farmers who encounter economic bad times suddenly have the lure of becoming pirates. That introduces a problem–does it not?–because you have the sovereignty of each one of these nations at stake. Is that something that proves difficult for these international efforts to combat piracy?

PJ: Yes, in practice I think that’s right. I think that does become a very complicated problem if counter-piracy problems are aimed at moving on shore, as it were. It’s often said that if you deal with a problem at sea, you’re only really handling a symptom of the case rather than the ultimate cause. But I would say there are important things that can be done by national governments or provincial governments in more effectively managing law and order around maritime courts.

To take my example of the theft of tugboats in Southeast Asia: well, in order for that trade to apply, you have to be able to go to a port somewhere to sell a vessel. So port security, the effective operation of police and customs, I think, is one of the most essential steps to really cutting out an opportunity for crime to be committed at sea.

In the case of Somalia, we have had an altogether different issue more recently, which has been the issue of the EU actually undertaking a tax onto pirate camps on the Somali coast, and I tend to think that’s likely to be a limited occurrence. I think it’s something which is perhaps more contemplatable in the Somali context because of the absence of state authority to control what is happening on shore. But in practice, a great difficulty in undertaking an operation of that sort is, how do you target the pirates? Because the pirates are living within their communities, how do you identify one person who’s the person who has committed an illegal act at sea versus others of the village, who may simply have no connection other than proximity with the pirates? That makes for I think incredibly complicated challenges to talk about mounting military operations on shore to go after pirates.

WH: We have just sat in a conversation on this issue prior to talking right now, and one thing that emerged, which I found interesting and I wanted to ask you to elaborate upon, was the case of the Seychelles, an island nation where piracy threatens its fisheries, its tourism industries, and yet –as I understand it, from what I heard, a nation that has taken rather extraordinary steps as a nation to combat it. Could you expand on that?

PJ: Yes, of course. Well, I think there are few nations that have been as badly affected by piracy as the Seychelles, because so much of the livelihood of the country is dependent on tourism, cruise ships visiting the country, fishing, and the fishing industry, and of course they are two things which been most dramatically affected by the sort of push of Somali piracy out into the Indian Ocean region. It is the case that what was a traditional practice in the form of fishing has now become a highly dangerous risk endeavor on the part of the Seychelles, and the numbers of cruise ships bringing tourists into the country have also significantly reduced because of the risk to cruise ships to pirate attacks.

So the Seychelles has had a very definite need to want to do what it can in the counter-piracy world, and they’ve actually stepped forward in a very impressive way to develop appropriate legal mechanisms to undertake the prosecution of pirates and to hold them in Seychelles prisons, and then to seek to repatriate those individuals to their home countries after they have served their time. And really that is an essential step, because in the absence of legal frameworks which can prosecute pirates, you have a problem of what is referred to by the Royal Australian Navy as “catch and release.” You may be able to stop a person committing an act of piracy, you may be able to take them into custody, but if there isn’t a legal framework, or a country that’s prepared to try them, you really have no option at the end of the day but to put them back on shore.

So what the Seychelles has done I think has been to really play a leading role internationally, with assistance from Australia and a number of other countries, to develop the right legal and prosecutorial regimes in order to actually prosecute pirates and make them serve their time. The Seychelles is really to be commended for that effort.

WH: Let me ask you about another country. Several of the people in this conversation who were not Australian complimented the Australians for their activities. Let me give you the time to talk about your own country for a moment. Obviously Australia is very active in this area. Can you describe that a bit?

PJ: Thanks, Warren. I’m always happy to talk about Australia. Yes, we have been particularly active in counter-piracy strategies for a number of years. One involvement has been in our navy presence in the Persian Gulf and around the Horn of Africa, where we’ve had ships deployed for many years, undertaking a range of tasks, counter-terrorism being one, counter-piracy being another. So we have had main fleet units, as we call them, involved in this business for a number of years.

The Australian government has also taken the view that it’s important where we can to build capacity in states within the Indian Ocean region, and increasingly so in West Africa, in order to give those states greater capabilities to undertake counter-piracy operations themselves. And so, for example, we have deployed Australian federal police to the Seychelles, where they have been involved in the training of legal procedures to undertake successful prosecutions of pirates. We’re also in the process of bringing a significant number of West African people from navies or coastguards to Australia for training on the technical details on running counter-piracy operations at sea.

Australia sees this as an important investment in the stability of our broader region. As our Ambassador to the UN Gary Quinlan said at this conference today, we are an Indian Ocean country; we look not only to the Pacific, but also to the Indian Ocean. And we need I think increasingly to look beyond the Indian Ocean, to Africa, as being one of the principle sources of the piracy problem globally.

So I think Australia sees that it has an important capability building role to play, working with friends in like-minded countries globally. It’s some value that I think we had to international counter-piracy strategies, and I’m fairly convinced that our own government will keep that effort up in incoming years.

WH: Peter, we at IPI sitting across the street from the United Nations building, are always interested in international action, international solutions. We’ve looked at the piracy situation in various meetings over the past three or four years, and I must say, a couple of years ago, I remember thinking it looked pretty hopeless. I mean, the pirates proved to be so adaptable that the moment somebody came up with an effective way to combat it, they had created some way around that.

I was taught today in the meeting that we were talking about that the balance seemed to have shifted a bit. Now we’re talking about other areas besides just Somalia, and I think the Gulf of Guinea and particularly Southeast Asia gives some encouragement that governments can get together and act together. But off the coast of Somalia, there really has been great progress. The numbers are down and the violence seems to be down. Yet, we heard from somebody from the UN with a phrase that this is all “fragile and reversible.” My last question to you is, are the good guys winning now?

PJ: Actually, Warren, I think they are. I’ve come to the view, having looked at this issue with some depth that piracy is a problem that the international community can solve, and that’s a rather refreshing thing, because we look at so many issues around the world and see no solutions. But counter-piracy strategies properly applied can limit and control the extent of the problem and have successfully done so in Southeast Asian and in Somalia.

I am concerned though that this is a moment for us not to become complacent, I think the internationally community needs to be seized of the problem. I think a risk that we potentially face in the next few years is that countries will slowly withdraw their navy units from operations around the Horn of Africa because of course these are highly expensive operations to maintain. What are we going to do in that situation? By then we need to have I think much more successful legal and international regimes in place to give us confidence that the problem once addressed is not simply going to reemerge in a different form, or indeed in different locations.

So I think there is cause to be positive and optimistic, but my call would be to say that the UN and the international community needs to remain seized with the issue, and not to turn attention away because we appear to have some initial success.

WH: Well, that’s a good message to leave with the UN as you go back to Australia. Thank you very much, Peter Jennings, for spending time in the Global Observatory.

PJ: That’s my pleasure, thank you for having me.