Thursday, 17 March 2011

New policy framework to tackle pirates, says External Affairs Minister

Indian ships to carry arms?

The Indian government has initiated wide ranging changes to the existing policy framework in order to take on the deepening Somali pirate crisis. Prompted no doubt by media attention and the tumult in Parliament recently over the plight of Indian seafarers held hostage on ships and in Somalia, the authorities have announced the formulation of broad based measures, from tweaking laws to giving the Indian navy new rules of engagement- even letting Indian merchant ships carry arms. Minister for External Affairs S M Krishna made a statement in the Lok Sabha yesterday saying that the Ministries of Shipping, External Affairs and Defence would address the “legal, administrative and operational aspects of combating piracy.” He also underlined that the government would increase “diplomatic efforts at the multilateral level and within the UN framework.”

An inter-ministerial group headed by the cabinet secretary would monitor release of Indian ships, crew or cargo hijacked by pirates, Krishna added, saying that this apex group would also “consider welfare measures necessitated after the release of hijacked Indian nationals”.

Krishna’s statement was made soon after the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) met in New Delhi under PM Manmohan Singh. With 53 Indians officially held hostage in Somalia on five ships- unofficial numbers are higher- the CCS is reported to have approved measures that include new aggressive Standard Operating Procedures for the Indian navy that widen the scope of its offensive operations, allowing Indian flagships to carry weapons and better military and diplomatic coordination with countries around the Indian Ocean rim. The Navy is set to be authorised to act if any Indian flagship or a ship with Indians aboard is attacked. A crisis management group will be setup to coordinate with all groups, including the families of seafarers held hostage.

The government does not see a role for itself in negotiating with pirates, the External Minister stressed. However, an official speaking later to the media pointed out that authorities would “bring a lot of pressure to bear” on shipping companies that have been the target of pirates in the region.

India does not have an exclusive law that deals with piracy. Opinions are divided amongst politicians on the way forward, with Leader of Opposition Sushma Swaraj saying that UN mechanisms on piracy should be used to tackle the menace. However, the government is said to be concerned that pirates, suspected to be involved with terrorist outfits, may pose a significant threat to the Indian coastline, shipping and cargo- 90% of the country’s trade moves by sea.

Experts have expressed some disquiet about the navy’s new rules of engagement, saying that a more aggressive stance taken after pirates have boarded a ship may needlessly jeopardise the lives of seafarers. They point to recent instances of hostages being killed in crossfire between coalition navies and pirates, who are more willing today to execute and torture captive sailors or use them as human shields. Finally, they point out that enforcing domestic legislation in international waters against pirates is a thorny issue that many countries have been struggling with for years.

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