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Volume 728: debated on Wednesday 29 June 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to combat the threat of piracy on the high seas.

My Lords, the United Kingdom is playing a key role in counterpiracy operations at sea, and we are leading international work with regional countries to build penal, judicial and law enforcement capacities in support. More than 1,000 pirates are now in custody. The first line of defence remains self-defence measures by ships to minimise the risk of a successful hijack. However, the long-term solution lies on land, with the rule of law and increased stability in the region.

Off Somalia alone, was there not an increase in piracy of some 60 per cent in 2010? The situation has not improved this year. I understand that masters and crew have been subjected to horrendous behaviour. Do the Government agree that this behaviour has been financed largely by al-Qaeda? Is it not self-evident that ships entering such waters should carry armed guards?

On the first point, the noble Lord is not quite correct; the figures that we have show that there were 47 hijacks in 2009 and 41 in 2010. In the first six months of this year the number was down to 18 and the number of unsuccessful attacks has also dropped very dramatically, so the total number of attacks so far this year is way down on last year. There is no room for complacency there at all because it is still a very ugly situation, as the noble Lord indicates, but a number of measures are being taken on land in building the prisons to deal with convicted pirates and on the high seas through unprecedented co-ordination between all the navies of countries such as the United States, Russia, all the NATO countries, Japan and China—a degree of co-ordination never before seen among navies. This is having the effect of reducing, not increasing, the incidence of piracy, but we still have a long way to go.

Is my noble friend aware that the African Union has stated that the United Nations is actively considering an air and sea blockade of Somalia in an attempt to prevent infiltration of insurgents into the Horn of Africa and to meet the crippling piracy challenge? Has such a blockade been agreed? If so, when might it come into play, and what part might the United Kingdom play in it?

My noble friend is perfectly correct that the African Union has proposed an air and sea blockade of Somalia, and its idea is to blockade ports such as Kismayo to put pressure on al-Shabaab logistics and funding. I should have said to the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, that we have very little evidence of connections between al-Qaeda and the piracy operations, although there may be some at an individual level.

As to blockades, an issue that my noble friend Lord Chidgey raises, the difficulty with permanent blockades is that they are hugely demanding on resources and a lot of the pirate operations are from beaches, not ports, so if you blockaded the port you still would not catch the pirates. However, intermittent or occasional blockades make sense, have already been tried against several operating bases and appear to have had a dramatic effect in reducing pirate operations. As a “from time to time” operation, this makes sense, but mounting permanent blockades would be immensely expensive and probably not very effective.

My Lords, again on the question asked by my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis, there appears to be an increasing consensus that there is a need to re-examine the case for armed guards on merchant vessels. Where do the Government stand on this?

I should have answered that third question from the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis; the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, is absolutely right. The view up to the present is that armed guards on UK-registered vessels would be technically illegal unless they came under military, authorised guard arrangements. However, that matter is being looked at again by my right honourable and honourable friends in the relevant departments. Some changes might be necessary, but hitherto the feeling has been that armed guards—certainly mounted on a private enterprise basis—could lead to more bloodshed and horror, possibly not deter the hijackers, and merely increase the violence. However, the matter is being reconsidered.

The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, suggested that this piracy was being funded by al-Qaeda, but does the Minister not agree that the reality is that it is being funded by the insurance companies, which are paying out substantial sums and making a number of people in Somalia extremely rich? Those people are now living in Nairobi, among other places. Did he see the evidence given yesterday at his nomination hearing by Admiral McRaven, who is being nominated as the head of the US Special Operations Command and was responsible for overseeing the operation against bin Laden, who said that there is a real need for a facility to deal with the problem of terrorists when they are captured? My noble friend gave some encouraging figures on prosecutions being brought against people, but can he give an assurance that there are no cases of these pirates being captured at sea, merely shipped back to Somalia and allowed to do it all over again?

On my noble friend’s first point, the British Government totally oppose all substantive ransom payments, will continue to do so, and advise everyone else to do so as well. That includes payments by insurance companies. It does not necessarily stop other countries behaving in what we think is a rather unwise way, but that is our position. My noble friend will have to repeat his further question, because I have forgotten it already.

I asked about making sure that there is a facility for handling the problem of captured pirates by ensuring that they are not simply returned to Somalia and able to make the next trip.

The noble Lord is right. This has been a considerable worry, and that is why I was able to tell your Lordships that considerable progress has now been made in providing prison facilities. One prison has been built in Somaliland, and a further prison is planned in Puntland. These will take the pressure off countries such as Kenya, which have found themselves landed with convicted pirates and with no means of imprisoning them and making them fulfil their penalties. Therefore, there is some improvement. I fully agree that there have been bad examples in the past, but we believe that with these measures and others it will be possible to ensure that those who are caught are properly charged and convicted and pay the full penalty.