Slowly and subtly political policies sometimes change, and it is necessary to keep a very sharp antenna tuned to the vibrations that emanate from the political classes, lest one be caught unawares.
It was earlier this year, at the conference hosted by the British Government in London to discuss the various problems of Somalia, that the matter of ransoms was first obliquely touched on. Perhaps this had been prefaced by various noises hostile to ransom payment coming from Washington, but the inference has clearly been that the payment of ransoms to pirates for the return of captured ships has been merely fuelling the continuance of the problem, in the view of some officials.
The message from the London conference was largely seen to be one of disapproval of the payment of ransoms, one that caused a certain amount of dismay in the maritime world, not least in those countries whose nationals have formed the largest part of the hostage “community”. There is now concern that a task force on ransoms recently formed may be undertaking its work with the aim of making the payment of ransoms, if not illegal, at least more difficult, and the welfare of hostages thus put at risk by such policies.
BIMCO, and maritime organisations from all parts of the industry, have made it clear that the safety of seafarers is paramount, with no efforts being spared to obtain the release of hostages taken by pirates. And while governments might boldly assert that they will not under any circumstances pay ransoms to hostage takers of any kind, it might be argued that these “principled” assertions are very different to the realities of actual hostage negotiations, and the duty of care borne by employers of seafarers.
Some suggest that it is both naive and unrealistic to suggest that the Somali pirates will meekly turn their backs on their lucrative criminal enterprise and return to more peaceful occupations if their access to ransom money is interrupted. The reality, as pointed out by those facing the grim business of ransoming their crews and ships, will be that such proscription will almost certainly condemn those already in pirate hands to an even worse fate. It is easy to make powerful statements of “principle”, but it is not governments who will have the job of explaining to the relatives of the hostages (some 230 are currently in pirate hands) why their loved ones are not returning. It is also not governments who will have the job of explaining to seafarers that, should they be captured by pirates, the process for their safe return has been interrupted by legalities.
The responsibility of governments, it might be suggested, is to put weight and commitment into solving the frightful problems ashore in Somalia, and to step up the peace processes that might possibly restore law and order to that troubled country. The maritime industry and its many participants are grateful for the naval protection being provided at present, but agrees that if there is to be any lasting solution, it must come on land, and not at sea.