Interview with Jon Huggins, Director of Oceans Beyond Piracy

Jon Huggins is the director of Oceans Beyond Piracy, a foundation dedicated to combating piracy. In this interview, Mr. Huggins said although the number of current hostages taken by pirates has decreased significantly, from hundreds last year to approximately 130 today, there are some disturbing trends. “We’ve seen the violence go up; I think as pirates get more desperate to collect their ransoms, that’s been a factor.”

The current solution for piracy, said Mr. Huggins, "involves the maintenance of between twenty and thirty vessels off the coast of Somalia, which is hugely expensive to those international navies that are doing that.”

A report done last year by Oceans Beyond Piracy showed that the cost to the international community was “right around seven billion dollars before 2011.” Part of the costs stem from defensive practices such as rerouting vessels, increasing vessel speeds, and hiring private armed guards.

Mr. Huggins said that though the use of private armed guards has brought down numbers in the short term, his organization Oceans Beyond Piracy, a private foundation, is opposed to them as a long-term solution. "We’re a peace foundation at heart, and so we always would support a rule-of-law solution, and the fact is that private armed guards are not there to arrest, or detain people, or warn people; they’re there to shoot people and defeat and repel attacks, so it is always a violent solution that they’re going to be able to provide.”

Mr. Huggins also discussed the challenges in repatriating freed hostages, and the complications with paying ransoms. 

As for the impact of piracy on Somalia, Mr. Huggins said the country's new government is realizing piracy has a financial toll “because the merchant and traffic that normally would come into ports such as Bosaso and Mogadishu is just not there.”

“However, I think we could be years away from being able to deny coastal areas to these criminal elements,” he said.

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

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Warren Hoge: Our guest today in the Global Observatory is Jon Huggins. Jon is the Director of Oceans Beyond Piracy, a foundation dedicated to combating piracy, an ancient and once-romanticized phenomenon that has returned in a new and very violent form in the 21st century to places like the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. John is here in connection with the 13th Plenary at the United Nations of the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS).

Jon, first of all, tell us about the foundation, and, by the way, why is it based in Denver, Colorado, a city I have seen many times without ever seeing a sea?

Jon Huggins: I think you’re right to say we have very little maritime heritage in Denver. I would say that we are a private foundation, and the vision of our founder was that industry and other stakeholders need to be involved to solve some of the most difficult issues on the international scene, and the one that they started with was piracy.

They thought there could be great business interest because it would be easy to show the cost of piracy to the maritime industry, but also that had a lot of these other factors that complicate things–it’s in international waters–and so there were a lot of actors that needed to get involved, so it seemed like a very good issue to start with the Oceans Beyond Piracy program.

WH: We here at IPI have done almost ten events in the last three years on this phenomenon, and I can tell from the numbers I hear now and the ones I was hearing then that there has been considerable progress made in the last few years, particularly in Somalia, that numbers are down–numbers of hostages and captured ships are down–but the statistics still remain alarming.

Can you capture for us right now in numbers things like numbers of hostages, numbers of ships, the period of time in which hostages are held, and, finally, the annual cost?

JH: Certainly. One of the things we talk about is the figures are much more positive than they were last year. If you asked this question last year, we would have said there are hundreds of hostages being held off the coast. Right now, there is approximately–depending on who you talk to–between six and eight vessels, approximately 130 seafarers being held.

Even though the numbers are down, we are starting to see some disturbing trends. We’ve seen the violence go up; I think as pirates get more desperate to collect their ransoms, that’s been a factor. There’s also been a couple other phenomena, such as removing certain crew members from the vessel and bringing them on land based on nationality. So, it could be based on a response to a national incident that happened. The other thing itself is, some of these hostages that are brought on land, it’s difficult to track and difficult to determine their condition.

We’ve also seen ships such as the Iceberg, which has been there for over two years now, and is going on in its third year. As far as the economic cost, a report we did last year showed that the cost to the international community was right around seven billion dollars before 2011. That cost has not gone down because of the measures being taken, so we have a very expensive solution to a problem that seems to be turning a corner.

WH: Jon, you can get the value of the ship and the cargo back through the insurance. But the damage to individuals is tremendous and cannot be compensated for. I’ve been struck by the fact, in conversations yesterday and today, that the focus of those conversations seem to be on the seafarers themselves and their families. Can you describe their dilemma, and what is being done about it?

JH: I think if we would have talked a couple of years ago, there was a myth out there that the pirates were taking some type of humane care of these hostages, and it was more of an economic situation than a human situation. I think that now, that’s been completely disproven, whereas when agencies mentioned the word “torture,” even up to a year ago, people were saying there’s no proof or evidence of that, and now you’ll see that commonly used to talk about the conditions they face.

The other thing we’re seeing is that while there did seem to be–and again, I don’t want to make the pirates more positive than they are–there did seem to be some code of conduct in realizing that the value was in the hostages, and they had to be at least taken care of to the point that they could be released.

Now we see desperation from the remaining pirates that were holding crews and we’re seeing very desperate measures being taken. We’re seeing fake executions. If they can locate numbers for the family, now they’re calling the family directly and making threats. And you’ve talked about the long-term damage–I think we’re starting to see that for very long periods of captivity, between six and nine months, it takes a long time for somebody to recover. And especially a seafarer that has no other job opportunities who has to continue to transit that area; you can imagine the stress and strain that he’s under as he goes on repeated voyages through this area.

WH: I know you said part of your purpose is to create a counter-piracy framework that is effective, that is sustainable, and that is equitable. How are you doing on those three points?

JH: I wish that we could somehow move that way ourselves. What we’re trying to do is ask the questions on how we get that way. We started with, like I said, last year, if you asked if there was an effective solution, I think the answer would have been no. This year, due to the number of attacks being down, the number of hostages being down, particularly the number of successful attacks being down, I think you could say we do have an effective solution, if you measure certain criteria.

When you look at whether this is sustainable, I think the answer is probably no. The current solution involves the maintenance of between twenty and thirty vessels off the coast of Somalia, which is hugely expensive to those international navies that are doing that. We have very expensive procedures being done by the merchant fleets, known as the best management practices, which involve rerouting thousands of miles in some cases, it involves increasing the speed of the vessel, which is very expensive, it involves in a lot of cases hiring a private security team. The cost of these, we know, can run between two and three hundred thousand dollars per voyage.

So, we don’t think that the maritime industry wants to sustain their defensive practices either, and so when you look at the equitability of the solution, which needs to be a long-term view, I don’t think we’ve looked enough at the different categories of stakeholders and what they’re contributing based on the risks they face.

And to give a few examples, some of these stakeholders might be importing and exporting nations–it could be flag states, insurance companies, private military security companies–so once you’ve defined who those are, then to try to figure out who should be doing what and–oh by the way, we probably need to move the leadership of this anyway to the region, so it could be a lasting solution–it can be a very big challenge.

WH: With the difficulty of freeing hostages, getting ships back, the emphasis seems to have turned now to prevention, trying to make sure these things don’t happen in the first place, and I saw some evidence in some of the comments today that you educate people on the dangers, you warn them of the dangers, you train them to how you should respond to the dangers. But then one of the speakers noted that no ship had ever been taken that had private armed security guards on it. Then the question arose, is this the answer? And there’s all kinds of risks there, including basically a bloodbath in the sea that could result. Do you have a view as to whether putting private armed guards on ships is the answer?

JH: I would say we realize the value of the private armed guards in bringing the numbers down in the short term. In the longer term, I would say that we are definitely opposed to the use of private armed guards. We’re a peace foundation at heart, and so we always would support a rule-of-law solution, and the fact is that private armed guards are not there to arrest, or detain people, or warn people, they’re there to shoot people and defeat and repel attacks, so it is always a violent solution that they’re going to be able to provide.

So, we don’t want to see the institutionalization of armed guards, and we know this is a view of industry as well, because it brings up liability concerns, there’s a huge cost concern with it as well, and reputational concerns of the industry itself. So, I think it’s better for everybody if we realize that it was a necessary short-term procedure, but we need to move to a place where we don’t require armed guards.

WH: Is repatriation of freed hostages an important goal? And, what happens to them once they go back to the home country? Are they just abandoned there? Or does the responsibility continue to monitor them and help them adjust to their own societies?

JH: The repatriation–the physical logistics of it–I think if you are coming from a responsible shipping company, the repatriation is something that happens. There is a certain escort that you’re taking to a safe haven for debrief and then a flight home. What we’ve seen are some of the smaller fishing vessels, and perhaps people from some of these nations that don’t have ship owners who can afford it, sometimes they are actually stuck even after they’re released, and we’ve heard of this happening in places such as Puntland, which is a very dangerous place–there has to be some provision given to get the people out of Puntland and then get them home.

As you’ve heard today, the United Nations Political Office for Somalia (UNPOS) is now taking it upon themselves, if they hear of such an instance, they’re making efforts now to repatriate those people. As for seafarers once they arrive home, you heard some discussion about this, and I think it has to do with stakeholder expectation, in that there’s different stakeholders from the shipping company to the flag state, perhaps to the manning agency that recruited these, and perhaps to different agencies within the seafaring states government that are now agreeing to cooperate on who would have responsibility for the long-term care for those that are negatively affected by long periods of captivity.    

WH: Is there a viable option to the paying of ransom to free a hostage?

JH: As was discussed today, the first one that would come to mind is some enforceable rescue operation. We know that this is very expensive. There are very few nations that have the capability to do this. We know we’ve seen press releases as well from different pirate groups saying that they would be willing to release hostages if certain nations agreed to prosecute certain pirates within their custody. I don’t have a view on whether or not that is a viable solution. I think one of the questions that we’d like to explore a little more is how important is justice to the seafarers that were held? Would they be willing to see their fellow seafarers released through some possible deal? And I don’t think that anybody’s really looked into that at least publicly at this point.

WH: And finally, on Somalia itself, when we’ve had these past conversations at IPI over the past three years, Somalia basically had no government. It had not had a government for about 19 years. Now it has a government. We are told that the government is aware of the dangers to Somalia itself of the piracy issue and is taking other steps that you can call responsible in different areas. Does the Somali government realize that part of its recovery is getting hold of this piracy problem?

JH: I think they do, and they realize that it has a financial impact on the country, because the merchant and traffic that normally would come into ports such as Bosaso and Mogadishu is just not there. So I think they realize the danger. The difficult part is that they have no basis for maritime security. That is organic, and there is a great hesitancy by the international community to start building that capacity before there’s proper oversight, and you’ve seen that there have been some private efforts that have started and then stopped, and that has had disastrous consequences. So I think they realized that this needs to be a priority. However, I think we could be years away from being able to deny coastal areas to these criminal elements.

WH: John Huggins, thank you for being with us today in the Global Observatory.

JH: Thank you.



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