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Royal Navy: Piracy

Volume 701: debated on Tuesday 13 May 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What guidance the Foreign and Commonwealth Office provides to the Royal Navy on intervening in cases of suspected piracy in international waters.

My Lords, first, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the family and friends of Trooper Ratu Babakobau, who was killed on Friday, 2 May in Afghanistan.

As for the Question, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office does not provide advice to the Royal Navy. The Ministry of Defence provides classified policy advice to the Royal Navy, which in turn provides detailed classified policy and legal guidance to its commanding officers to enable them to fulfil the United Kingdom’s obligations under international law including, in particular, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. The pirates off the coast of Somalia are becoming ever bolder, frequently attacking in excess of 100 miles out from the coast. They certainly do not come from Penzance; they are very nasty people indeed. When the Royal Navy captures some of them, how will they be dealt with and brought to justice? Who has jurisdiction, and where will they be tried?

My Lords, the noble Earl is right to say that incidents of piracy in that part of the world have increased. Although such incidents have fortunately decreased in other parts of the world, they are becoming a more difficult problem on the coast of Africa that he mentioned. The Royal Navy has an obligation under international law to help if it is in a position to offer assistance. If it is in the vicinity, it has powers of capture, should that be appropriate, under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Should people be apprehended and taken into custody by the Royal Navy—this has not happened so far—they would remain in United Kingdom custody until any ship of ours entered territorial waters, but before that happened we would talk to any of the nations that might be involved. As it is very rare for an instance of piracy to involve nationals from only one nation, you have to take into account the ownership of the ship, the personnel on board and the territory into which they may be going. If people involved in piracy were brought back to this country, they would be subject to the British criminal justice system.

My Lords, I should like to enjoin these Benches in the Minister’s earlier tribute.

The British Chamber of Shipping’s annual review states:

“The Chamber recognises that the impact of any transient show of marine force is limited and that permanent solutions to the piracy problem in both Somalia and Nigeria can come only from land based action that denies pirates their safe havens and operating bases”.

To this end are Her Majesty’s Government having discussions with the Somalian Government on allowing hot pursuit or similar on their territory?

My Lords, what the noble Lord says is absolutely true. We have a problem in this area because of the ineffectiveness of the domestic Government in Somalia and their inability to tackle this problem. This concerns us and the United Nations. There have been two resolutions in the United Nations within the past year and discussions are under way about a possible further resolution which would affect Somalia in particular. We are trying to assist Somalia, both individually and collectively with our allies, so that it can provide more protection. It is not an easy task but is one that we take very seriously.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness accept that under both the law of nations and the Merchant Shipping Acts an act of piracy is a crime at international law and therefore triable in the courts of England and Wales wherever it has occurred? Can she tell the House when the last prosecution occurred and whether any prosecutions are either contemplated or in train?

My Lords, I have no knowledge of any prosecutions. As I said, the Royal Navy has not been involved in apprehending and arresting anybody for piracy, so it has not yet brought anybody back to this country. By definition, that means that no cases are pending.

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that the acts of piracy off the coast of Somalia are clearly becoming extremely serious and spreading to other regions as well? The recent publicity about the instructions to the Royal Navy has caused considerable concern. Can she explain how it is possible for the French navy to operate much more robustly than seems to be permitted to the Royal Navy?

My Lords, as I said, all these cases are individual and different and the situation is therefore very complex. I think that it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the operations of another state. As I said, very often not just one country is involved because a ship may belong to one country but individuals and the crew may come from another.

All countries have the same powers. We take the view that we have to be extremely cautious in what we do in these circumstances but that we should take any action we can to protect people, and indeed we have an obligation to do so. As for the French boat—I presume that the noble Lord means “Le Ponant”—I understand that the French took action in conjunction with the Government of Somalia after agreeing on the action thought necessary in that case. Fortunately, we have not had a similar case involving a British boat. As for the figures, piracy is not increasing worldwide. Other areas are not following Somalia in that regard.

My Lords, from these Benches we also send our condolences to the wife and two young sons of Trooper Babakobau of the Life Guards.

Following on from my noble friend Lord King’s question, will the Government join France in lobbying the UN Security Council to adopt an international piracy law?

My Lords, the United Kingdom, along with France, Panama and the United States, is already co-sponsoring a proposal at the United Nations for a further resolution on the matter. It is already in hand.