The French Navy and counter-terrorist forces take swift and dynamic action to bring pirates to justice off the Horn of Africa, while the British Foreign Office puts pirates’ human rights before safeguarding lives at sea & protecting trade. Here ‘Odin’ makes some trenchant criticism of the British government’s position while praising France’s stance.

The prompt reaction of the French Navy off Somalia in response to an act of piracy contrasts sharply with the UK Government’s  pathetic attitude to this modern scourge on the high seas. Within hours of the French luxury holiday cruiser Ponant - not a ‘yacht’, though it does have three masts - being seized by armed brigands (in April), a small French force already at sea had been reinforced. Commandos, led in person by their Admiral commanding and a Colonel of the gendarmerie shock troops, parachuted into the Indian Ocean, to board French naval vessels participating in the operation to rescue the Ponant and her crew. It was an operation carried out with élan and deserved its subsequent success in freeing the hostages, restoring the cruise ship to its rightful owners, recovering the ransom money and arresting the pirates. Bravo! Meanwhile, in the alternate ‘Alice in Wonderland’ world of the Gordon Brown administration - riddled as it is with former lawyers,  ex-social workers, teachers and professional politicos - the attitude to piracy has become disgustingly supine. While the French were flying the pirates away to face justice, the British government was reviewing the advice it gives to merchant ships.  And the astonishing new advice is to surrender, to not create any fuss and not to violate the human rights of any pirate. You couldn’t make it up. What the British advice to mariners actual says is: ‘The carrying and use of firearms for personal protection or protection of a ship is strongly discouraged and will not be authorised by the British Government...In some jurisdictions killing a national may have unforeseen consequences even for a person acting in self-defence.’ That’s probably very good advice if the Royal Navy is just over the horizon and prepared, or rather allowed to act. However, the British advice to mariners goes on to say that ‘the likelihood of a Royal Navy ship being nearby when an incident occurs, particularly in distant waters, will not be great. British ships will therefore, need to rely on their own vigilance and resources to prevent attacks and on the capability of Coastal States to suppress piracy or armed robbery.’ This is of course true, as the New Labour government has, over the past decade it has enjoyed in power, set about destroying the Royal Navy with gusto, getting ridding of many surface warships that could have provided useful security on the dangerous high seas. In recent years the British fleet has been forced to withdraw from several multinational forces and other commitments it once participated in regularly, as befitted a Navy that was until recently second only to the mighty US Navy in terms of experience, combat-readiness and presence at sea. Recently, it was suggested in one British newspaper that soon the Royal Navy would be forced to provide a standing escort force of four ships to shepherd merchant vessels through the Straits of Hormuz. With only 25 frigates and destroyers - possibly to be cut to just 20 - the reality is that the UK fleet probably has only half a dozen such warships available for ALL its global missions. Presumably, in reality, the British will rely on the goodwill of the Iranians not to be naughty. When it comes to the recent incident of decisive action by the French against an evil act of piracy - a role that was once almost the exclusive province of a powerful and proud Royal Navy - British warships were, in fact, allegedly patrolling off Somalia. However, it is understood they were advised not to detain any pirates because the latter might claim that they risked a hand being chopped off for theft under sharia law if landed in Somalia and, therefore, were entitled to claim asylum in Britain! What about the human rights of the victims of piracy, who, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMO), have included, over the past ten years, 3,200 kidnapped seafarers, 500 injured and 160 killed? To further expose the shameful cowardice of the UK government, we need only look at an incident that happened a short time before the Ponant was seized.  The British captain of a St Vincent and Grenadines-registered ocean-going tug, the Svitzer Korsakov, recently spent nearly two months in captivity, after Somali pirates attacked his ship, blew out the bridge windows, then seized it.  Officially neither the Royal Navy nor certainly the British government reacted despite the involvement of a UK national, and eventually the ship owner paid a ransom alleged to be in the region of US $700,000.  The British seafarers’ union Nautilus UK is outraged at the attitude of the UK government. Its general secretary, Brian Orrell, has condemned  a “disturbing deterioration in the nature of the [piracy]  incidents and the levels of violence and intimidation being used against seafarers.”

Mr Orrell has asked the UK Foreign Office to reconsider its policies on piracy, particularly when it comes to issuing advice to mariners sailing off Somalia.

Mr Orrell believes “it is important to have assurances about the levels of assistance and protection for British seafarers - irrespective of the flag of their ship - operating in high-risk waters.” There have been rumours of a British warship conducting a covert mission in support of resolving the Svitzer Korsakov situation, but if true it was so secret as to be worthless in deterring further acts of piracy.  In the case of the Ponant justice was served. It is not known if the dead pirates would have preferred having their hands chopped off, by the justice system that does not exist in most of Somalia. Whether arrested or killed, the Ponant pirates will not be back to threaten murder and mayhem on the high seas and those that still lurk along the Somali coast will know to avoid French-registered vessels. British ships, on the other hand, look to be big, fat, easy targets. Andrew Linington, a spokesman for Nautilus UK, the union for maritime professionals, has accused the British government of sticking its head in the sand “We despair,” Linington told the New York Times. “We are meant to be a major maritime country. The UK is heavily dependent on maritime trade, 95 per cent of trade comes and goes by sea. Yet the Foreign Office is just wishing the problem of piracy would go away.”  In fact, the British government has also left it to France’s diplomats to take the initiative with the IMO - the only UN organisation based in London. For, via the IMO, France is seeking a Security Council resolution that will protect shipping from piracy and allow foreign naval forces to enter territorial waters in hot pursuit of pirates. Once, the world would have expected Britain to lead in such matters, but there again, if there are no easy votes in it, the Gordon Brown administration isn’t interested. Nor does either of the other two UK main political parties seem interested. However, bearing in mind that 95 per cent of British trade by volume still goes by sea, that may yet change.

The cost of all those ransoms paid and rampant piracy will be more expensive insurance policies for shipping firms, passed on to High Street UK via a price hike in supermarket goods. In the meantime the spineless Foreign Office of a lacklustre Brown administration will fiddle while the cargo ships and liners burn off the Horn of Africa and in the Gulf of Aden. Thank God for the French Navy.

  • See the June 2008 edition for our report on the French Navy’s mission to rescue the Ponant and her crew.

The cruise liner Ponant, safe under the guns of the French Navy, after being released from the hands of Somali pirates. Photo: Marine Nationale.

The cruise liner Ponant, safe under the guns of the French Navy, after being released from the hands of Somali pirates.

Photo: Marine Nationale.

French Navy helicopters carry naval commandos towards an interception of the fugitive pirates.

French Navy helicopters carry naval commandos towards an interception of the fugitive pirates.

Photo: Marine Nationale.