G8 Ransom Ban – Pirates v Terrorists

It is perhaps embarrassing when your guests begin to disagree on matters, so its always easier to try and steer the talk into safer, more agreeable territory. As the leaders at the G8 summit have been resolutely failing to agree on Syria, it seems their host UK Prime Minister David Cameron has decided to rally them all to the flag of agreeing to “stamp out” ransom payments to terrorist groups.

Cameron has announced that up to $70m (£45m) is estimated to have been paid to free Western hostages in the last three years – an average of $2.5m (£1.9m) for each captive and that a ”very strong” declaration was expected.

Mr Cameron called on private firms to follow the G8′s example and refuse to pay ransoms to kidnappers. Much of the money handed over is thought to go to terror groups including al-Qaeda and its affiliates, and the Taliban. The Prime Minister, hosting the two-day G8 summit at Lough Erne, County Fermanagh, tweeted: “Another #G8UK result: leaders agree to stamp out ransom payments to terrorists, calling on companies to follow lead.”

Inevitably when the word ransom is raised, attentions turn to Somalia and the kidnap epidemic which has exploded in the region. Thankfully things have calmed down, but at least 78 people are still being held captive by Somali pirates and their lives are in real danger.

While the G8 focus, we are sure was aimed at actions on land, the discussions have worryingly turned to piracy at sea. The upshot of the stamping out of ransoms is that it will be nigh on impossible to free seafarers if the Somali piracy plague emerges once again. Sadly it seems that lives will be put at risk based on the flimsy pretext that piracy supposedly funds terrorism. A claim which has repeatedly never stood up to scrutiny.

It is positive that there is united determination within government to break the financial chain potentially funding terrorist groups, but it is simply not right to makes decisions driven by the mistaken acceptance that there is a link between the activities of the pirates and of terrorists.

It has been confirmed in several authoritative reports and by EUNAVFOR that “no direct link” exists between pirates and terrorists and researchers almost always alight on the fact that piracy is a business model based on criminal activity, not terrorism.

There is no shortage of research on the matter – a 2010 paper from Karine Hamilton of Edith Cowan University entitled “The Piracy and Terrorism Nexus: Real or Imagined?” clearly states, “the nature of terrorism and piracy in Somalia all point toward the conclusion that the two phenomenon are distinct from each other both in terms of geography and practice.”

While Lord Jopling the author of the NATO report “The Growing Threat of Piracy”, stated:

  • There is so far no evidence of collusion between Somali pirates and Al-Shabaab
  • Pirates’ activities are incompatible with the principles of Islam, and
  • On the risk that the proceeds of piracy are used to finance terrorist organisations. “here again, evidence of a direct link is so far lacking.”

A 2012, paper entitled “Maritime Terrorism and Piracy: Existing and Potential Threats” Eric Shea Nelson of Norwich University, VT stated that “maritime terrorism and piracy are two distinct phenomena that are capable of being separated from one another”.

Nelson added that from his research “It is clear that the perpetrators of these acts have different motivations and choose targets based upon separate objectives.” He criticised the suggestion of a piracy-terrorism nexus and expressed concern that such “misperception” has profound implications and complicates policy development and implementation.

The paper concluded that “Policymakers need a clear understanding of maritime terrorism and piracy in order to overcome the inherent challenges of mitigating them.” Simply banning piracy ransom payment based on the wrong assumption that they fund terrorists serves no positive purpose.

With such bold and flawed pronouncements there are real concerns that individuals or companies will be prohibited from paying a ransom. Currently when crews are hijacked shipowners have no option but secure the release of crews by the payment of ransoms, without this recourse shipowners would be effectively forced to abandon their crews to appalling treatment and an uncertain fate.

A ban could also have a devastating effect on global trade and industry, if the capability to free hostages is removed, the risk of capture and almost certain death may well be too much for seafarers to bear, or indeed shipping companies to accept. They may simply have to vacate large swathes of ocean – the pirates will have won a victory which no-one wants.

The announcement by Cameron seemingly ignores the UK Foreign Affairs Committee which just last year (January 2012) stated: ‘…the Government should not pay or assist in the payment of ransoms but nor should it make it more difficult for companies to secure the safe release of their crew by criminalising the payment of ransoms’.

Even Judges seem to recognise that payment of ransoms is currently the only guaranteed way to secure seafarers’ lives. As noted in a UK Commercial Court judgment on piracy ransoms in the UK (Masefield v Amlin [2010]) and which was subsequently confirmed by the UK Court of Appeal, Mr Justice David Steel) stated:

  • He was “unpersuaded” that payment contrary to public policy
  • Payment of ransom is not illegal as a matter of English law
  • Accepted that payments of ransom encourage a repetition, BUT
  • If crews are to be taken out of harm’s way, the only option is to pay the ransom.
  • “In short the only realistic and effective manner of obtaining the release of a vessel is the negotiation and payment of a ransom.”

There are some who even see that a ban on ransoms could violate the European Convention on Human Rights – Article 2 – the right to life and Article 3 – the right to freedom from torture, inhumane and degrading treatment. Also a ban would likely lead to ransom payments being driven underground. We would lose the ability to track them and thus to capture and prosecute the pirates who kidnap seafarers.

All in all, the basic premise of stopping terrorists receiving cash is a fair one – but the minute there is a suggestion that piracy are lumped into the equation, then it is dangerous, inflammatory and plain wrong. We can only hope that someone in the decision chain knows the difference between terror and piracy.