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Volume 756: debated on Thursday 16 October 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to address the incidence of piracy off West Africa, particularly against oil tankers.

My Lords, the Government believe that the level of piracy off west Africa remains broadly stable year on year, but increased levels of reported kidnappings at sea have raised the profile of the issue. Piracy is one symptom of regional maritime insecurity. The UK is working bilaterally and multilaterally to address it through capacity-building initiatives in support of the 2013 Yaoundé code of conduct, which seeks to build and develop regional maritime security.

Is my noble friend aware of the estimates from the US maritime agencies that the incidence has increased by 80% between 2010 and 2013? That involved 1,200 vessels and no fewer than 279 kidnappings. In the light of that, should we not use the experience that we all had in Somalia: in particular, first, ensuring that vessels themselves have defensive methods on all ships and that transponders cannot be switched off; secondly, ensuring that when there is an incident, the navies of the nations are there to arrive on the scene in good time; and, finally, that UAVs are made available to locate all sorts of vessels?

My Lords, it might be helpful if I explain to the House that although we are talking about piracy, the matter falls into two legal capacities, and some of the figures amalgamate the two. Of the criminal attacks taking place at sea, some are in territorial waters—which is where the majority of the real theft is done, from oil tankers anchored off Nigeria—but outside those territorial waters there are also kidnappings and thefts of a much lower amount. Perhaps I may give a general answer to my noble friend’s three major questions. We do not believe that it would be appropriate to take from our experience internationally in Somalia and replicate it in west Africa. First, most of the crime in west Africa is in territorial waters, and in the area covered—from Senegal right the way down to Angola—there are a range of functioning Governments who can implement their own efforts to combat maritime crime in territorial waters. Outside territorial waters, maritime crime clearly has less of an impact. However, international discussions are going on. My noble friend raises the point, “Why not arm?”. The Government and the UK maritime industry have made it clear that they do not wish to see private armed guards on boats, because another difference between Somalia and west Africa is the level of sheer vicious assaults in the latter area. In west Africa they are not afraid to kill.

My Lords, the waters in the Gulf of Guinea are highly complex, as the Minister says, with overlapping territorial seas and a lot of stuff taking place in those waters. However, there is no doubt whatever that the threat to the mariner is growing and growing, and we have to do more than we are doing. Does she not agree that we have a perfect storm developing in this region, with the huge growth of kidnapping and piracy in the south? There is a discussion to be had around Abubakar Shekau and ISIL, and now Boko Haram is taking over territory and declaring an Islamic state—then there is the growth of al-Qaeda in the Maghreb and the incidents taking place in Chad and Mali and all those countries. There is Ebola in the west and the enhanced flow of drugs from Colombia into west Africa. Some of these are Commonwealth nations, and we as a nation should do more in that region to try to pull this together. Ideally, I would like to see ships going there from east Africa, but of course we cannot do that because we have too few. Perhaps a motor boat with noble Lords like the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, who served in the Navy, could go out there and do something.

My Lords, first, I pay tribute to the Merchant Navy, which is often the unsung hero; without it, world trade comes to a halt. The noble Lord referred to the Royal Navy. Two Royal Navy vessels visited west Africa last year and three so far this year. They conducted a series of visits and training exercises; their efforts vary from hosting senior officers and training small boat crews to organising multiple ships in a passage exercise. So they are covering all the bases to make sure that the skills are there and that action can be taken. There are also diplomatic efforts to ensure that we encourage the Yaoundé agreement to go ahead and so that the Maritime Trade Information Sharing Centre in the Gulf of Guinea is operative, and we contribute funds to that.

Does the Minister agree that the real problems lie in the buoyant black market for oil in the region and the endemic corruption, up to government level—and, in one of the worst cases, up to admirals in the Nigerian navy, who have been implicated? This problem, as she says, can only really be solved by countries working together internationally to help to develop regional maritime security in the area.

My Lords, I agree entirely with the noble Lord. The only thing that I would add is simply the figures. He refers to the amount of theft of oil in Nigeria. Conservative estimates indicate that up to 100,000 barrels of oil a day are stolen in Nigeria.

My Lords, last year I lectured on a cruise that went round the west coast of Africa and was surrounded briefly by a number of pirate ships. It was quite striking how very different the coast off Somalia was to the coast that came before that, because as many people will know it was guarded and protected by the gathering of European navies to take responsibility for safety in that area. I very much agree with the remark made by the noble Lord, Lord West. Is there no way in which the Commonwealth could work together with the International Maritime Organization to extend that kind of protection further down that extremely dangerous coast?