In mid-June I chaired an international conference in Perth aimed at developing responses to piracy and related crimes at sea. The meeting was sponsored by the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Defence, and a summary of the deliberations as well as some very useful background papers by Sam Bateman has been released by ASPI today.
Three separate regions accounted for the vast bulk of the 439 actual and attempted piracy attacks in 2011: Southeast Asia, in particular the eastern approaches to the Straits of Malacca; the Horn of Africa; and the Gulf of Guinea. In each region the causes of piracy differ. In Southeast Asia stealing and reselling tug boats is a major problem. Ships left idle and at anchor in the wake of the global financial crisis are easy targets for attacks. Off the Horn of Africa and deeper into the Indian Ocean, piracy is the by-product of political authority breaking down in Somalia. Fishing communities can turn to piracy for a livelihood and become vulnerable to more organised criminal elements looking to make money from ransoming ships and their crew. In the Gulf of Guinea, piracy frequently involves stealing oil from tankers in sophisticated operations built around avoiding tax payments and illegal bunkering.
The causes are varied but the solutions share some common features; tightening up the policing of harbours and ports, and boosting cooperation between national agencies and between regional navies and maritime enforcement bodies. The good news here is that collective action will work to reduce the problem. Close cooperation in Southeast Asia, for example, is reducing the number of serious acts of piracy (although ironically increased reporting of lower-scale incidents seems to obscure the scale of overall reduction).
In a surprisingly low-key way, Australia has been making an important contribution to strengthening regional cooperation on counterpiracy. Apart from the regular deployment of a Royal Australian Navy major fleet unit to operations in the Gulf which include counterpiracy work, Australia has provided significant funding to the United Nations to strengthen anti-piracy legal frameworks in a number of Indian Ocean region countries. One obvious next step would be for Australia to further champion the issue at the United Nations Security Council. A number of UNSC resolutions have dealt with piracy in disparate regions. But the Perth conference shows that there is a lot of value in identifying global lessons by pooling experiences from different regions and identifying common elements and developing shared solutions.
Australia is well-placed to lead in developing a global consensus around counterpiracy strategies and we should further commit to strengthening that global view. Our investment thus far gives us the credibility to lead in such an effort at the United Nations and elsewhere.
Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.