Anti-piracy body backs off on international maritime force

By Niluksi Koswanage and Razak Ahmad

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - An international piracy conference on Tuesday backed off tough proposals calling for an international naval taskforce to be set up under U.N. auspices to fight Somali pirates after members disagreed over implementation.

The measure was aimed at fighting a sharp rise in piracy, with Somali pirates mounting 81 attacks between January 1 and April 20, according to United Nations data. The attacks threaten trade routes and aid supplies and push up insurance costs at a time when most of the global economy is in recession.

The initial resolution from more than 60 countries and the European Union was watered down after a two-day conference in the Malaysian capital that brought together governments, navies and shipping bodies.

"The United Nations is invited to consider further the possibility of taking joint measures through the contact group on piracy off the coast of Somalia and its working groups to coordinate maritime force operations to suppress acts of piracy and armed robbery against ships off the coast of Somalia," the final statement said.

That was far weaker than a draft statement, seen by Reuters, that called for the United Nations to consider "the establishment of an international maritime force to suppress acts of piracy and armed robbery against ships off the coast of Somalia."

A senior maritime official who attended the conference said: "Asking for the formation of an international maritime force has legal and political ramifications."

"We are going forward too fast," the official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Differences over laws concerning the arrest of pirates, some of whom work to order at the behest of criminal gangs outside Somalia, have bedevilled operations in the Gulf of Aden and more force was needed, naval officials said.

Richard Farrington, Chief of Staff of European Naval forces, told the conference there are now 25 warships from the European Union, China, the United States and Japan patrolling 2.5 million square miles of waters off the coast of Somalia.

"We need 60 (vessels) in the Gulf of Aden and another 150 in the Somali basin," Farrington said.


The absence of a functioning government that can provide a legal framework in Somalia, as well as different interpretations of laws on piracy, is a huge obstacle to fighting piracy.

While some navies have taken robust action, others take the view it is not illegal to carry weapons in international waters and arrests cannot be made unless there is evidence of piracy.

U.S. Navy commandos shot and killed three Somali gunmen last month to free Richard Phillips, a U.S. ship captain held hostage, while French commandos stormed a yacht seized by pirates.

However, in another case, a Portuguese naval ship intercepted pirates and released them after confiscating their weapons.

European Union human rights laws, which guarantee all people including pirates respect for their basic rights, are a particular problem, said Geoffrey Till, Professor of Maritime Studies at King's College in London.

Kenya, which neighbours Somalia, last year agreed to prosecute pirates on behalf of countries that are unable to do so themselves. Till said it had prosecuted 60 pirates since then.

(Writing by David Chance; Editing by Paul Tait)

Article Published: 19/05/2009