The scourge of piracy in areas such as the Horn of Africa off the coast of Somalia continues to grow. Although the number of hostages taken in 2011 decreased, the violence faced by seafarers continues to grow, taking an immense toll on human life and well-being.

The ICC International Maritime Bureau report titled ‘The Human Cost of Piracy 2011’ released in June 2012 reveals a disconcerting trend. While the number of attacks went down, the severity of attacks has actually become worse, while renewed attempts by both private security and navies to force changes in pirate habits are not always for the best.

The risk has also expanded to affect tourists and humanitarian aid workers who have become victims of Somali pirate gangs. Additionally, growing violence between pirate gangs has adverse effects, both on hostages and on Somali civilians.

Oceans Beyond Piracy’s (OBP’s) human cost report

“The ICC International Maritime Bureau report titled ‘The Human Cost of Piracy 2011’ released in June 2012 reveals a disconcerting trend.”

In 2011, at least 3,863 seafarers were assaulted by armed pirates seeking to hijack their vessel and kidnap them.

Of these, 968 (25%) seafarers came into close contact with pirates that succeeded in boarding their vessel; 413 of those who came in close contact with pirates were rescued from safe rooms or citadels by naval forces after lengthy sieges.

The number of seafarers subjected to armed attacks decreased in 2011 by eight percent from the previous year.

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The most notable change was a 50% decrease in the number of seafarers kidnapped by pirates and taken hostage.

There were 2,895 seafarers subjected to weapon-fire in these unsuccessful attacks. In this scenario, pirates fired assault rifles and RPGs at both their place of work – the bridge – and their living quarters.

Victims of piracy – hostage toll in 2011

Early 2011 witnessed an increase in pirate activity with more than 700 hostages held aboard vessels off the coast of Somalia. Throughout 2011, however, pirates captured fewer seafarers, reflecting a significant drop in the success rate of pirate attacks.

While the decrease is good, the average length of captivity for hostages held in 2011 was eight months, 50% more than the 2010 average.

“Early 2011 witnessed an increase in pirate activity with more than 700 hostages held aboard vessels off the coast of Somalia.”

Somali pirates held 1,206 people hostage in 2011. This number represents 561 people captured in 2011 and 645 people who were taken captive in 2010 and remained in pirate hands for some or all of 2011.

The victims are citizens of more than 47 countries, the vast majority being from Asia — especially the Philippines, China and India. Only seven percent of the hostages came from Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations.

There are 26 hostages that have been held for more than two years and 123 hostages that have been held for more than one year as of 31 May 2012.

The risk of being subjected to violent crimes and mistreatment increases with prolonged periods of captivity, including increased rates of assault and abuse, increased risk of disease and malnutrition, greater likelihood of giving up hope (a hostage committed suicide in 2010 during a prolonged captivity) and being transferred from gang to gang.

Declaration Condemning Acts of Violence Against Seafarers (Washington Declaration)

The 2010 report on the Human Cost of Somali Piracy relied on scant official information on pirates’ treatment of hostages during captivity.

This lack of publicly available data prompted the formulation of the Declaration Condemning Acts of Violence Against Seafarers (the Washington Declaration). The Washington Declaration commits flag state signatories to submit reports on seafarer welfare during captivity to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB).

As of June 2012, four of the largest flag states – Liberia, the Marshall Islands, Panama and the Bahamas – have signed on to the document.

Piracy – the human cost

“The Washington Declaration commits flag state signatories to submit reports on seafarer welfare during captivity to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB).”

The hostages held by Somali pirates are subjected to a range of violent crimes. The victims lack adequate protection under the law because, in addition to the lack of effective policing (or government) in Somalia, offshore authority is fragmented, there is no lead law enforcement agency designated to protect seafarers and other victims of piracy, and it is also unclear who should prosecute pirates following apprehension.

While the Washington Declaration has provided some information on what happens in captivity, the extent of the specific crimes committed during the period of captivity is difficult to quantify due to the limited amount of publicly available information.

According to publicly available reports, 57% of hostages faced mistreatment at the hands of pirates. Also, 26% of hostages suffered abuse while 43% were used as human shields. The assessment of abuse came from international media sources and includes extreme forms of violence against hostages.

The term ‘human shields’ describes hostages kept onboard mother ships and used as a form of security against attacks by naval forces or private armed guards. There are also reports that hostages may be used as shields during fights between pirate gangs in their disputes over “ownership” of hostages and ransom.

One of the significant changes in 2011 was the increased number of hostage deaths. Deaths were assessed using EU NAVFOR, Compass Risk Management and open media sources. Of the 1,206 hostages, 35 (three percent) are reported to have died in 2011.

There were many causes of death, including being killed by pirates either in the initial attack or after being taken captive, disease or malnutrition, failed escape attempts, or getting caught in the crossfire during a rescue effort by a naval vessel. In cases where seafarers were killed during rescue attempts, they were being used as human shields by pirates.

Piracy – the unaccounted

It is likely that these figures underestimate the total number of pirate causalities because they do not include those lost at sea or killed during encounters with private security.

It is also likely that this excludes many of those killed by other pirates. Based on media reports, violence between pirates appears to be growing with negative impacts on seafarers and civilians who may be killed or injured in the crossfire.

The willingness of pirates to accept these risks shows either their ignorance of the dangers associated with piracy, or the level of their desire to capture a vessel and negotiate a ransom, and pirates’ acceptance of these risks appears to correlate with an increased acceptance of violence inflicted on their hostages to acquire payment.


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