UN General Assembly on Piracy 2010

May 26, 2010

Informal Meeting of the General Assembly on Piracy
United Nations

Delivered May 14, 2010

Douglas B. Stevenson
Director, Center for Seafarers Rights
The Seamen’s Church Institute

Madame Moderator,

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to this important meeting of the General Assembly on piracy.

Anyone who knows me or the Seamen’s Church Institute will be aware of our commitment to advocacy for merchant mariners’ professionalism and well being. I will preface my remarks on why seafarers and shipping are important to everyone.

Maritime commerce is vital to the world’s economies and prosperity. Almost everything produced or consumed anywhere in the world depends on shipping. In today’s global economy ships carry more than 90% of global trade. Because the well being of all of all the world’s citizens relies on shipping, protecting the safe and efficient flow of commerce by sea must be a top priority of all nations. All nations benefit from shipping; therefore all nations must share in the responsibility for maintaining maritime security by countering threats to shipping.

We are here today to discuss one of the threats to maritime security: piracy. Throughout history, pirates have captured the public and governments’ imagination. The blending of fact, myth, literature, and cinema has created an image in popular culture of pirates as basically good people fighting injustice under a code of honor while unfettered by societal constraints. Popular culture, for the most part, overlooks the reality of pirates’ brutality to seafarers on the ships they attacked.

Governments have looked at pirates in a light very different from that of popular culture. To governments, pirates have always been criminal thugs who threatened commerce, political stability, and security. Pirates have attacked commerce for as long as goods have been transported on ships. In response, early rulers created an extraordinary legal theory unique to piracy. Because piracy was considered a particularly heinous crime, pirates were deemed to be “Hostis Humani Generis,” or enemies of all humanity. Piracy became, as early as in Cicero’s time, a universal crime (meaning that pirates can be prosecuted by any country, irrespective of their nationality or where the act of piracy occurred). This customary maritime law principle is today codified in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The dramatic increase of pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia in 2007 and 2008 rekindled international attention to piracy. Subsequently, government and industry have developed a number of initiatives to address the growing problem. During 2008, the United Nations Security Council adopted five resolutions addressing piracy off the coast of Somalia. A Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia, comprised of twenty- four nations, several international organizations and maritime industry representatives, was established to facilitate and coordinate efforts implementing Security Council Resolution 1851. More than 25 countries have sent naval units to patrol waters off Somalia to protect shipping from pirates. The International Maritime Organization has updated its guidelines for flag states and ship operators on preventing and suppressing acts of piracy. The maritime industry has developed “Best Management Practices to Deter Piracy in the Gulf of Aden and Off the Coast of Somalia.”

These are just a few examples of the international responses to the threats of piracy off the coast of Somalia. Almost every week, somewhere in the world, a seminar, conference, or other discussion on piracy takes place. Most of the efforts, however, aim to suppress and deter piracy. These efforts are, of course, necessary because the best approach to piracy is preventing attacks in the first place, and they also help protect seafarers from pirate attacks.

While deterrence and prevention are very important topics, a critical issue now needs greater attention: What happens to merchant mariners who have been threatened or attacked by pirates?

Since 2003, pirates have kidnapped or taken hostage more than 4,000 seafarers, and they have robbed or attacked many more. More than 200,000 seafarers experience the threat of piracy sailing through waters off the coast of Somalia every year.

  • What happened to the seafarers after their release or after being attacked?
  • Do you know their names or where they are from?
  • Did they continue their seafaring careers?
  • Are they fit to work on ships?
  • Do they need continuing medical attention?
  • Do they receive medical attention?
  • Where do they get help to deal with the aftermath of surviving a piracy incident?
  • What happens to the seafarers’ and their families who have been affected by piracy?

If you don’t know the answers to these questions, don’t feel alone. I don’t know either. No one knows. No one is keeping track of the seafarers held hostage, attacked or otherwise affected by pirates. There is no central resource where seafarers, shipowners, and flag states can go for information on responding to the effects of piracy on seafarers.

Of the five UN Security Council adopted in 2008 on piracy in Somalia, none cited protecting merchant mariners as a rationale for international efforts to suppress piracy. (The preamble of Res. 1816 mentioned the grave dangers that piracy poses to seafarers1.)

The current IMO and Contact Group guidance for shipowners and flag states on responding to pirate attacks do contain some guidance on dealing with seafarers after an attack. But, this guidance has, so far, been limited to gathering information for military intelligence or prosecutorial purposes, not for seafarers’ well being.

Last year the International Christian Maritime Association, a world-wide ecumenical organization of church-based seafarers’ agencies, submitted a paper to the International Maritime Organization’s Marine Safety Committee calling upon governments, international organizations, non-governmental organizations, and the maritime industry to devote more attention to the effects of piracy on seafarers and their families, specifically to:

  1. Study the psychological effects of piracy on seafarers.
  2. Create guidelines on caring for seafarers and their families affected by piracy.
  3. Create a piracy survivors resource center where seafarers, their families, shipowners, and seafarers’ assistance organizations find help for dealing with the effects of piracy on seafarers and their families.

In response, the Seamen’s Church Institute initiated, in conjunction with the Disaster Psychiatry Outreach at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and the New York Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, a groundbreaking clinical study to assess the effects of piracy on merchant mariners. Our study will go beyond examining how pirate attacks and hostage taking affect seafarers. It will also look at the stress of simply traveling through pirate-infested waters. The lessons learned from the study will help us develop advice for merchant mariners, shipowners, flag states, labor supplying states, chaplains, trade unions, first responders, and seafarers’ families on dealing with piracy generated stress, how to cope with being held captive, and how to deal with trauma caused by a pirate attack. A critical element of the study will be our gaining access to seafarers affected by pirates or who have experienced a pirate attack – or have endured the stress of transiting pirate-infested waters. The study is being conducted at the highest ethical and scientific levels, scrupulously protecting seafarers’ individual privacy. I ask your help in gaining access to seafarers for the study.

We have prepared preliminary guidelines for the post-piracy care of seafarers and provided them to the maritime industry and to Working Group 3 of the Contact Group. We are very pleased that Working Group 3 has placed preparing guidance to shipowners on caring for seafarers affected by piracy on its agenda. Several shipowner organizations have begun work on guidelines on caring for seafarers. This is a very positive development. Yesterday, I was in London to present our guidelines to the IMO Maritime Safety Committee in London. Caring for seafarers, including these guidelines, is being addressed in the IMO as we speak today. These efforts focusing on addressing seafarers’ issues are to be applauded and encouraged.

Why should we care about seafarers? Most of us will agree that is the right thing to do for humanitarian reasons. We must pay much more attention to addressing seafarers’ needs in respect to piracy not only for humanitarian purposes, but also for security purposes.

As I mentioned earlier, since all nations depend on shipping for their prosperity, all nations share responsibility for maintaining maritime security. Piracy does not pose the biggest threat to maritime security, although it affects it. Many assume that terrorism the greatest threat to maritime security. It is not. The gravest threat to maritime security is the worldwide crisis of recruiting and retaining sufficient numbers of skilled and responsible men and women for shipboard careers that is required to sustain maritime commerce.

All of us, governments, international organizations, non-governmental organizations, commercial interests, and ordinary citizens need to do what we can to make shipboard careers a more attractive career option for skilled and responsible men and women. The first step is to recognize seafarers’ contributions to us and to raise their stature commensurate to their value to our lives and economies.

Unfortunately, perceptions of vulnerability to pirate attacks is just one of the many disincentives for those considering beginning or staying in seagoing careers.

Seafarers are vitally important to the world’s commerce and prosperity. We depend upon them and we owe them the assurance that we will do everything we can to protect them from piracy – before, during, and long after an attack.

The international community of nations and the maritime industry has untaken considerable efforts to prevent, detect, and suppress piracy. This work is very important and must continue.

Governments and the maritime industry must take an active role not only in preventing and suppressing pirate attacks, but also in ensuring that seafarers and the families affected by piracy receive proper care.

Mr. President, before I conclude, I wish to ask one more thing:

As we sit in this special meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, and after we leave this place, please keep in your thoughts and prayers the 371 seafarers from 17 merchant ships, and their families, who are, at this very moment, being held hostage by pirates in Somalia.

Thank you.


1 Although one Security Council Resolution, Res. 1816, did mention crews in a preamble paragraph “Deploring the recent incidents of attacks upon and hijacking of vessels in the territorial waters and on the high seas off the coast of Somalia including attacks upon and hijackings of vessels operated by the World Food Program and numerous commercial vessels and the serious adverse impact of these attacks on the prompt, safe and effective delivery of food aid and other humanitarian assistance to the people of Somalia, and the grave dangers they pose to vessels, crews, passengers, and cargo.”