Ship crews are feeling exposed and defenceless with the alarming rise of piracy attacks in Asian waters
THEY strike mainly under the cover of night, surprising and terrifying their unsuspecting prey. The speedboats dart out of the dark and grappling irons are thrown over the side of a ship. Before the vessel's crew has time to realise what has happened, it is too late - the pirates have struck.
With the alarming rise in the number of pirate attacks in Asian waters, ship crews are feeling exposed and defenceless.
'It's this fear of not being able to do much about it,' said the Reverend Peter Ellis, senior chaplain of the Hong Kong branch of the Mission to Seafarers. 'Crews can have all the fire hoses in the world to try and avoid being attacked by pirates, but at the end of the day, if pirates want to get on, they do.' When a ship is hijacked, it is not some chance encounter, but one that has been meticulously planned. Details about shipping routes, dates, times and cargoes are all in the public domain and the pirates know exactly what they are looking for. Sometimes they have already sold the cargo before taking over the ship.
Last week a regional conference in Tokyo on combating piracy and armed robbery against ships showed there was definitely the will to fight piracy, but Asian countries need to find the way.
Some Asian countries agreed to co-operate with one another in fighting piracy both by joint law-enforcement measures and encouraging increased ship security, despite China's insistence that it would protect its own waters.
Indonesia, which has the worst record by far in Asia for piracy incidents - 113 last year - announced on Friday it was setting up a centre to monitor ships travelling through the Strait of Malacca, a notorious area for attacks. The intention is good, but there is scepticism over whether Jakarta has the resources.
What was highlighted at the Japan meeting is the lack of legislation to prosecute pirates once they are caught.
What is needed, according to Hong Kong Shipowners' Association director Arthur Bowring, is to introduce international legislation that ensures successful prosecution wherever the crime is committed.
'There is a lack of domestic provisions in legal systems in Asia allowing countries to prosecute crimes that have been committed outside their territory,' he said.
Mr Bowring is keen for Asian countries to become signatories to the 1988 Rome Convention, 'a clever piece of international legislation', he said, 'which puts an extradition treaty in place between signatory countries'.
The convention came about after an attack by Palestinians on the Italian cruise ship, the Achille Lauro, in October 1995, on which an American tourist was murdered.
The convention talks about 'substantial interest jurisdictions', which enable all countries that have a stake in the ship to prosecute. These could be the owner, the state where the ship is found, the state of the ship's cargo or the state of the ship's crew.
'If the state where the ship is found does not have prosecution against pirates, then the other states can call for extradition under the convention to their states so the pirates can be prosecuted,' Mr Bowring said.
Within Asia, only Japan, China and Australia are signatories of the convention.
At present, if countries do catch pirates, they are hard-pressed to keep hold of them.
India resorted to an old British colonial piracy law when it realised nothing more modern covered the prosecution of Indonesian pirates caught aboard the Alondra Rainbow recently.
The Alondra Rainbow was hijacked last year leaving an Indonesian port with a cargo of aluminium ingots.
The crew were cast adrift in a fishing boat and lifeboat until they were rescued by Thai fishermen several days later.
The ship was eventually identified 320km off the coast of Goa and chased by the Indian navy. During the chase, the pirates tried to scuttle the ship and burn the documents but the Indians got hold of the ship and arrested everyone on board. India wanted to prosecute under the international Law of the Sea, but found no specific provision there.
Digging through the archives, the British colonial Piracy Act was found. Fortunately it had not been repealed and will now be used to prosecute the pirates.
But China has no law to prosecute foreign pirates when they catch them, if the crime has been committed outside its territory. It simply has to let them go. And it has done so more than once.
In one notorious case in 1998, suspected Indonesian pirates were freed but mainland Customs officials detained the captain of the Petro Ranger, Australian Ken Blyth, for 30 days.
Petro Ranger's owner, Alan Chan, of Petroships in Singapore, is scathing about the mainland's refusal to participate in joint initiatives following the Japan meeting.
'The Chinese are not in favour but they themselves have not behaved. They have no right to refuse when their own investigations are so opaque,' Mr Chan said.
Mr Chan called for more transparency from the mainland and pointed out that any act of piracy could affect half a dozen countries - all of those with an interest in the ship.
'It is an international scandal. China is accountable to all these countries and has to carry out proper housekeeping. They cannot just cover up if they choose to,' he said.
Mr Chan felt Asian countries should cede a little sovereignty to the cause of cross-border policing and 'hot pursuit' - when law-enforcement agents chase a suspected pirate boat over a sea border - to increase the rate of successful prosecutions. 'You cannot have an effective overall effort without somehow infringing on a bit of sovereignty.' Mr Chan praised Japan for leading the charge against piracy.
'A lot of Japanese trade goes through the Malacca Strait. Imports such as oil, for example. There has been quite a lot of pressure from the Japanese trading community to do something about piracy, and Japan has a lot of economic clout to persuade East Asian countries to turn it into a joint cause,' Mr Chan said.
Many in the shipping industry feel it needs a disaster before governments will react. 'It's like the lifeboat charity,' Mr Ellis said. 'There's nothing like a ship going down for people to get their money out. People need a disaster before they react. And it will need onshore people to be affected.' Captain Jayant Abhyankar, deputy director of the International Maritime Bureau, said countries had to be more pro-active. 'They need to examine their legal framework and provide legislation so that pirates in their territory can be prosecuted.
'The shipping industry has done what it can with anti-piracy devices, drills and other security precautions. The ball is now in the court of governments to provide legislation. It's a global problem and no country can go it alone,' Captain Abhyankar said.
Until something is done, ship crews are still vulnerable to attack.
The Tokyo meeting suggested making satellite tracking devices on ships compulsory, but as yet not all ships have installed them. With advanced technology, crews on container ships have become vastly reduced and the ships are sometimes manned by a crew of just 14.
One officer with the Australian merchant navy said his crews were on edge travelling into Asian waters as they were forbidden by the Australian Government from carrying arms and felt they could not protect themselves.
Their ships fly the Australian flag and are clearly identifiable by the markings on their sides. Petrified crew members had gone so far as to experiment with erecting 'scarecrows' that look like they are carrying guns, which could be positioned on deck throughout the night.
A sentence from The Mariner's Prayer reads: 'Yea, though I sail amid the thunders and tempests of life, I shall dread no danger.' With increased security measures and international co-operation against piracy, his prayer may with time be answered.