Tackling piracy: UK Government response

Foreign Office Minister Henry Bellingham gave a speech to the British Chamber of Shipping on the UK Government’s response to counter-piracy.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Henry Bellingham


Grahaeme - many thanks for your kinds words of welcome. And my thanks to the UK Chamber of Shipping for the invitation to speak today.

One of the most important duties of a Government is to protect UK citizens, both at home and abroad. In the networked world of the 21st century, insecurity in pockets of the world ripples outwards and the impact can be felt here at home.

Africa is a long way from the UK. But the crimes committed on the high seas off the coast of Somalia and off the coast of West Africa have a direct impact on the UK’s security, prosperity and the lives of British people. I want to focus today on East Africa, but I will also turn later to the situation in the Gulf of Guinea, which also concerns us a great deal.

Here are some statistics to prove why Somali piracy matters:

  • 23,000 ships transit through the Gulf of Aden each year;
  • It is the second busiest international trade route in the world;
  • Nearly one trillion dollars of trade to and from Europe travelled through the Gulf of Aden in 2008; and
  • the turnover of the British shipping industry is worth £10.7Bn of our national GDP.

For all these reasons, the Government is determined to respond robustly and comprehensively to the threat from piracy. I’d like to share with you today what this Government is doing, and why our relationships with industry and our international partners are central to effective action.

Human Impact

But I want to make my first substantive comments on the human impact of piracy. Too often this is neglected. But the suffering of innocent seafarers must not be ignored. Paul and Rachel Chandler have written a harrowing account of how a sailing holiday turned into a nightmare. And the Save our Seafarers campaign has rightly brought to the forefront the long-term psychological impact and trauma that piracy attacks and subsequent captivity can inflict.

None of us should underestimate what it would be like to be detained for 158 days, which is now the average, let alone 563 days, the longest so far.

In my comments today I will focus initially on the following areas:

  • the role of our navy in our national and international strategy;
  • the central role of the shipping industry, and our partnership with it;
  • what is being done on the use of private armed security;
  • and finally our work with regional partners and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime on securing prosecutions for pirates.

I will then look forward to the threats on the horizon, all of which underline that we cannot be complacent.

I will then finish by discussing the efforts that must be taken on land to help Somalia improve its security and stability and reduce poverty. These issues must be tackled in tandem, if we are to eradicate the resurgence of piracy off the coast of Somalia.

What has the UK done?

The Government has deliberately adopted a collegiate approach. The challenge is cross-cutting , and so too must be our response. At the FCO we are working side by side with our colleagues at the MOD, DFID, Department for Transport, Home Office and Ministry of Justice. I chair the Ministerial Working Group on piracy and the issue has been discussed regularly by the Prime Minister and his colleagues in the National Security Council, most recently at the meeting I attended yesterday.

The UK has clearly defined objectives and plans for action. But I’d like one of my key messages from today to be that this is not something the UK alone can solve. We must bring our partners with us.

Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia

The key international body on piracy is the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia. It is a unique combined political, military and industry with more than 50 countries and organisations from the EU to the Arab League. It is a strong embodiment of collective political will. The UK is privileged to chair Working Group 1, enabling us to provide direction and leadership on the co-ordination of military operations and in developing the maritime security capabilities of Somalia and other regional partners.


On the military front, I would like to make clear my admiration and respect for the tremendous achievements of our Royal Navy and other navies operating alongside them. There is an unprecedented number of navies in the region sharing information and co-ordinating operations on a scale and with openness that has never been seen before. They have varying mandates, but a clear common purpose and a pragmatic can-do approach which is very good news.

We are proud to provide the Operational Commander for the European Naval Force, currently Rear Admiral Duncan Potts, who is today in Kenya but who is represented by his Chief of Staff. I was most impressed by my visit to the headquarters at Northwood when I visited in June. You might think having 128 staff from 20 EU and partner countries would be a recipe for confusion. Far from it. It works like clockwork, and the common purpose I mentioned just now was palpable. In the ops room I was briefed by navy personnel from at least six countries, as well as by the merchant navy liaison officers, whose invaluable work I recognised in a medal ceremony just a year ago.

The EU Naval Force protects the Gulf of Aden and World Food Programme shipping. But our navies have also been given a stronger mandate to act against mother ships and hijacked ships at sea, and the Royal Navy is ready to do so. Indeed, many of you will have seen the reports of the positive role played by the Royal Navy alongside a US Navy frigate yesterday as part of a NATO operation in securing the safe release of an Italian merchant ship, and the detained pirates are now in Italian hands heading for prosecution.

I am also heartened to hear from EUNAVFOR that both pirate dhows which have put to sea so far this season have been put out of service, one of them at the bottom of the sea. And also that a pirate whaler acting as a supply ship was also sunk last week through a joint EU/NATO operation. Rules of Engagement are already strong, and the naval operations will be given the legal authority they need to deliver effective action.

This Government is 100% behind a more robust response to piracy, and we are glad to see the Royal Navy, EUNAVFOR and NATO leading the way.


As far as industry is concerned, I have been impressed by the latest update to self-protection measures, Best Management Practice 4. BMP is the gold standard, and I am grateful for your efforts - including increasing efforts by the insurance industry - to press for maximum compliance. Almost all successful pirate attacks occur against ships that do not comply with the guidance. We need to do all we can together to protect ships and their crews from attack.

Private armed security

And so to private armed security. I know this is an issue which matters a lot to the industry. And it matters to the Government as well.

Current Government policy strongly discourages the use of private armed security on ships. My colleague Mike Penning has said that this policy should change, and has done a lot of hard work to make this possible. You will all understand that the complex legal issues linked to use of firearms need to be considered very carefully, including the extent of any regulation necessary. But this work is nearly done, and a change of policy and practice will be announced soon.

I want to underline that we are not doing this lightly. We are planning for the arming of ships to be a temporary measure only. It is a response to the extraordinary circumstances in which we now find ourselves.

But we are doing this because there is no doubt that private armed security provides significant protection. Not one ship carrying armed security has yet been hijacked. And 9 out of 10 failed attacks in the last few months were repelled by armed security, in those situations where the military was not involved.

There are risks. The military must be told armed security is aboard. Any use of force must be in compliance with the law. And it is essential that armed security is not used as an excuse for the highly effective self-protection measures to be put to one side.

But the key risk is quality. There are many providers out there. Many of them have a good reputation. But some are cowboys. I want to make clear my respect for the hard work of the industry, which has worked alongside UK officials to provide the guidance which will make this work. Ultimately it is down to the industry to analyse its own risks, decide what security it needs, and who it wants to provide it. But we are strongly encouraged by the good work being done on self-regulation by industry bodies and associations.


As far as the legal process is concerned, it is a fallacy that pirates are not prosecuted or imprisoned. There are now over 1000 Somali pirates held in custody in over 20 countries, including three key pirate leaders and financiers. Just today another 11 pirates were sentenced in the Seychelles to 10 years imprisonment. I welcome this.

The Government is clear that pirates must pay for their actions. This is not negotiable. What is frustrating is to detain pirates and not be able to prosecute. We want pirates detained, tried and imprisoned in the region, ideally in Somalia itself. And we know this is what regional partners want too. Where there is evidence, and therefore the possibility of conviction, we do not want to see any more catch and release situations.

To this end, we are undertaking ground breaking project work on prisons, prosecutions and transfer agreements, in conjunction with the outstanding team at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

UNODC is undertaking prison work in Kenya, Mauritius, the Seychelles and Somalia - and Tanzania will be added to this list shortly. I want to pay tribute to Kenya and the Seychelles for their continued commitment and support, and look forward to the first handovers to Mauritius and Tanzania.

I also want to underline the importance of the role of Somalia and its regions. Especially important is the building of prisons, and the agreement to post-trial handovers from the Seychelles, probably starting at the end of the year. Imprisonment in Somalia is the most sustainable solution, hopefully soon with prosecution there too. I will speak next week to President Farole of Puntland and make clear my appreciation for his support on this.

Policy Announcements

At this stage I would like to make a number of policy announcements:

  1. First, I am pleased to announce the agreement of the Government of the Seychelles to host a new maritime intelligence and information coordination centre. We will partly fund this UK initiative, and the Serious Organised Crime Agency is now engaged in making it work. The objective will be to bring military and law enforcement capabilities together under one roof, for the first time in this region.

The coordination centre will facilitate the tracking of pirates and the organisation of enforcement action against pirate financiers and leaders. It will also be linked directly to the Seychelles prosecution system, which is supported by the UK Crown Prosecution Service. Many international partners have already pledged support.

Our support for this centre is one sign of the commitment of this Government to prioritise action against pirate kingpins. We must cut off the supply of money and weapons that fuels piracy. Maybe hitherto we haven’t devoted enough attention to tracking the flows and getting at the pirate leaders. This is now a priority, and this centre will help us in that.

  1. Second, I am pleased to be able to announce today that the Government is reaffirming its confidence in the excellent work of the UNODC by making a further donation this year of £2¼M. This will support further UNODC work in Mauritius, the Seychelles, Tanzanian and within Somalia. UNODC is delivering outstanding results, and the UK is proud once again to associate itself closely with its work.

  2. Finally, I can announce that the UK is providing £200,000 to the UN Development Programme to conduct a maritime security needs assessment in Puntland and Galmudug. These are the areas most affected by piracy. The fact it is UNDP doing this work will help ensure that all work in the Rule of Law sector is then aligned.


So, we have a multi-tier strategy that we are executing to deal with Somali piracy. The effort in the region has been highly effective and is working. There have been no hijacks in the critical Gulf of Aden trade artery since September 2010. And we must remember that protection of the Gulf of Aden shipping route has been our key objective. But we realise too that the success of international operations in this region has displaced pirate attacks into the wider Indian Ocean.

Ten ships and 247 hostages currently remain in pirate hands. This is ten ships too many. This year to date there have been a total of 120 attempted pirate attacks, which is an increase on the attempts last year. Most are far away from the Gulf of Aden, and therefore harder to combat militarily. But the success rate of these attacks is well below the historical average. When military operations started it was 1 in 2. This Government will continue to encourage the military operations to watch the key pirate hotspots such as the coast of Oman as closely as they can, within the scarce resources they have available.

Looking ahead, I want to be clear that this Government is not complacent. Countering piracy remains an absolute key priority.

We must not underestimate the unpredictability and ingenuity of pirates. It remains hard to predict where they will focus their efforts. And as they are flexible, so our approach needs to be flexible and responsive too.

We must continue to provide our partners in the region with the resources they need to respond to these threats. Western navies won’t be there forever. The Royal Navy will continue to have a presence in the region for some time to come. But with other partners drawing down, military commanders are rightly concerned to ensure they have sufficient forces. We need to continue to look for innovative solutions, and the commercial chartering of a Maritime Patrol Aircraft by Luxembourg is a fine example.

Our partners have made clear their political will to tackle the challenges themselves, through the 2009 Djibouti Code of Conduct and the 2010 Regional Plan of Action. Kenya has made clear it wants to do more to regain control of its waters following recent events. The UK can and will help here and elsewhere in the region.

The attack last week on the oil rig drillship POSEIDON is an interesting example. 8 pirates boarded the vessel. But the Tanzanian Defence Force repelled them, acting in partnership with a British Private Security Company, Drum Cussac. This joint work was based on good practice and high quality planning.

It is also clear that piracy and armed robbery at sea is a rising concern on the West Coast of Africa. Armed robbery has been endemic for some time in the Niger Delta. I was briefed during my recent visit to Nigeria on the steps which are being taken to protect life and property. The Government is concerned by the spread into the waters of other countries, including recently Benin and Guinea. The violence used on the west coast is especially worrying. Yet again governance and law enforcement are critical, as is industry self-protection.

But I am most encouraged that we are applying to the West of Africa the lessons we have learnt from the East. And also that industry is already at the forefront of the response.

I would like to recognise today the work of the Oil Companies International Marine Forum, who have been partnering us in the development of a Maritime Trade Information Sharing Centre for the Gulf of Guinea. This will be similar to the information sharing and early warning system in the Indian Ocean and will make a big difference to ship and crew safety. I am very pleased too that Ghana has agreed in principle to host the centre. I hope it will be underway soon.

The problem cannot be solved at sea

We have always been clear that the problem of piracy has got to be solved on land.

Somalia is in the brutal grip of senseless terrorism. Last week’s attack in Mogadishu was horrific, especially as most of those killed and injured were students.

And Somalia is also in the grips of a terrible humanitarian crisis. The first famine of the 21st century was declared in Somalia in July. It is estimated that four million people across Somalia are now in need of life saving assistance. The UN predicts that without this humanitarian aid 750,000 people could die before the end of the year.

The famine and the threat of piracy and terrorism are all symptoms of one central problem - the breakdown of the state. Somalia is the world’s most failed state. Tackling piracy and its causes cannot be separated from this.

So, we are working with the Somali government, and our international partners, to build long term solutions that address the long standing problems. Despite the issues of governance and access, there must be engagement on land to move the situation forwards.

And this brings me to my final policy announcement today, in two parts:

  1. First, to say that the Government has decided to commit £2M to community engagement and economic development projects in coastal regions. This will include a much stronger push on messaging, including to highlight the fact released to camera by one ex-pirate leader that one third of pirates never come home when they go to sea. This messaging will be coupled with small scale but high impact programmes to offer real alternatives to piracy;

  2. and second, that I am pleased to say that I have recently been engaged in preliminary discussions with industry partners to consider not just how industry will continue to play its important role in reducing the risk of piracy to seafarers on board vessels, but also - as a new and important step forwards - towards reducing piracy by tackling the problems onshore, in partnership with the Government and the UN. We are looking in particular at working together on these innovative community engagement schemes, and hope to finalise our preparations for this soon - please watch this space.

So when police and security forces drive out pirates, there will be something coming in behind. This way youngsters will have a real alternative.


Mr Chairman, I would conclude by focusing on two key concepts, risk and partnership. They apply to both sides of the equation.

To pirates, risk is an inherent part of what they do, but they have perceived the risk/reward ratio as being on their side. That is changing, including through the new measures I have outlined today, and must continue to do so.

Partnership is also a key part of the pirate model. They spread the financial risk through syndicates, and their networks are widespread. But their networks are also their weakness if we can track them effectively, in particular to target the kingpins.

And risk and partnership are also highly relevant to us. Risk is the watchword of the mariner, who takes every step to minimise it. And to combat pirates effectively we need to take risks. The military take risks at sea. And Governments need to take risks in support of our military by trying new and innovative solutions and giving some trust to our partners in Somalia.

And none of what we do on our side works without partnerships. Between military and industry. Between the military and the legal system. Between us and our partners in the region. And between Government and industry.

Mr Chairman, piracy is one of the biggest threats to modern day commerce. Safe maritime trade is essential to the UK, not least as trade is fundamental to pulling us out of our current economic situation. I have spelled out our forward agenda of action, as well as our determination to be tough at sea and put resources into the solution on land.

We are a nation of entrepreneurs. We are also a great maritime nation. Piracy is a scourge that creates misery and must be defeated. We must work together to make that happen.

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Published 12 October 2011