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Hong Kong International Piracy Conference

13 November 2009 at the Mariners’ Club, TST, Kowloon

Chairman of the Nautical Institute, distinguished speakers, ladies and gentlemen,

                    It gives me great pleasure to give the opening remarks to this International Piracy Conference. This time 12 months ago three Hong Kong flag vessels with a total of 68 crew were being held for ransom off the Somali coast and in the following months the number of ships and crews in the same situation increased tremendously with the number of hijacked ships reaching over 30 with more than 600 crew held hostage earlier this year.  I am happy to say that today the figure is now significantly lower. Credit is due to the international shipping organisations who drew up the Best Management Practices to Deter Piracy for ships crews to follow and the actions of the naval forces which have been continuously increasing in number and effectiveness over the past year. For instance the PLA navy has been providing convoy protection since the beginning of the year and with that action no HK flag ship has since been hijacked.

                    Despite the improvements in the Gulf of Aden recent events in the Indian Ocean off the Seychelles show that the threat is evolving and as real today as ever.  Somalia remains a failed state and 35,000 ships still transit the seas off Somalia each year so we must not allow ourselves to become complacent.

I must declare that my interest is very much on the impact to the crews of merchant ships facing the prevailing risks in the Gulf of Aden and elsewhere. As an old tanker man, I had some experience in the late 1960’s and 1970’s of deterring armed thieves in ports here in Asia and further afield from Africa to South America. As an officer in Marine Department I observed such theft activity grow into the more serious emergence of attacks on ships at sea in the Malacca Straits, which from the late 1990’s occasionally involved ransom demands for senior officers. Now crews are faced with being attacked with automatic weapons and RPG’s on the high seas in the Gulf of Aden, off the coast of east Africa and with potential spillover to other parts of the world.  For once shipping is getting a lot of newspaper coverage as reporters hoist banner headlines about modern day Jack Sparrows affecting the security of global trade, 90% of which is carried by sea. Smaller columns on the inside pages detail its effect on marine business such as requiring new assessments of insurance risk. I recently read an article quoting a shipping financier who claimed that the challenge of piracy was to have adequate insurance for the ship and adequate preparation for the crew to face being held hostage for who knows how long.  Based on a recent case, is 2 million US dollars too much for the release of a 35,000 ton loaded bulker and the 22 filipino crew or should the company hold out longer for a lower ransom.  This after the crew had been held hostage for five months. Can you imagine what it is like being held by gun toting, drug chewing thugs for five months, or maybe one month, 24 hours maybe.

Anyway this banker elaborated on his theme by saying that it was important that the crew were aware that their employer was behind them and would pay any ransom necessary for their release and that they would be provided with training on how to respond after being taken hostage, presumably how to squat and smile. Now this response, intended as it is to be of great comfort to the seafaring profession, would be better received if it were preceeded with assurances that greater efforts were being made to assist them in not being taken hostage in the first place!

                    To be generous to the banker, and who isn’t these days, whilst prevention is always better than cure he was right to look at the post hijack scenario when the crew are held hostage.  But he didn’t mention support to the families of seafarers during this trying time.  Nor was there any mention about the follow up for the crew after release from many months of captivity. What leave is given, what counselling provided, the treatment of seafarers in such hostage cases is an issue that needs to be given more attention whilst we, quite rightly, focus on measures to prevent hostage taking in the first place.  I am sure that holding this Conference in an institution established for the welfare of seafarers, the Mariners Club, is symbolic of the concern felt for their wellbeing in piracy cases, by the organizers, the Nautical Institute and the Hong Kong Shipowners Association..

                     That is not all that this Conference will provide. This morning you have eminent security experts on all aspects of piracy to address in detail many questions. Such as what deterrence are crew on board merchant ships best able to present, barbed wire or bazookas. The use of on board contract security personnel in high risk areas, do they give enough bang for their bucks.  The contribution of naval forces, do we need more and is the Combined Maritime Forces command co-ordinating the various naval units for maximum impact. Should the warships set a priority on convoy duties or monitoring safe transit corridors, and what to do with captured pirates, behind bars (212) or back to brigantry (343). This afternoon we move from the high seas to high finance as experts on negotiating tactics, insurance and legal issues take to the floor.

                    All told a very captivating agenda if you will pardon the pun. Thanks go to the organizing team from the Hong Kong Branch of the Nautical Institute and to all the speakers, most of whom have traveled from afar.

                    I wish you all a very successful Conference.

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