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Royal Navy won't fight pirates 'in case they claim asylum'

'Tis Execution Dock a council flat for ye, matey

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Comment Following a recent spate of pirate attacks* off the Horn of Africa, reportedly Her Majesty's Royal Navy has been powerless to act following official concern over possible violations of the buccaneers' human rights - and worries that they might seek asylum in the UK after being captured.

The shipping paper Lloyds List first reported the supposed government handwringing in an analysis piece on the recent surge in piracy off the lawless Somali coast. Much of the world's trade passes close by Somalia, constrained by the Bab-el-Mandeb straits at the southern end of the Red Sea. The area has long been a hotspot of maritime crime, but in recent months activity has surged to unprecendented heights - with ships and entire crews being seized and held to ransom in the notorious pirate port of Eyl.

Other navies such as the French have recently mounted aggressive raids against the pirates, and even Russia has now ordered a naval taskforce to the region. But British warships patrolling the Red and Arabian seas have so far failed to get stuck in. According to Lloyds List:

British Foreign Office officials are understood to have advised the Royal Navy not to confront or arrest pirates in the region for fear of transgressing human rights legislation or encouraging their seeking asylum once taken to the UK.

The possibility of piratical sea-scum being clapped in irons and returned to Blighty, there to roast swans in rent-free council flats rather than dancing a final hornpipe on the end of a rope at Execution Dock, has led to a predictable outburst of tubthumping.

The Navy has issued a boilerplate denial that it is soft on piracy, saying that "Royal Navy commanding officers take decisive action to aid ships under attack in international waters, including the use of force or detention if necessary".

There is in fact an international naval force operating in the Arabian and Red Seas called Combined Task Force 150 (CTF 150), currently commanded by a Canadian officer but including ships from several nations including the UK. CTF 150 was actually set up in the wake of 9/11 to deter terrorism and related activities, but has struggled to achieve very much as it has no powers to stop and board vessels suspected of aiding terrorism - eg by arms smuggling.

However, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea does allow warships to stop and board a vessel suspected of being engaged in piracy, and indeed it has been strongly suggested that a lot of the ransom money currently being extorted from the shipping trade passes to terrorist-affiliated groups. (Rather more plausibly in this case than when similar claims are made regarding digital piracy.) So it's hard to see why more people aren't emulating the French.

Is there an institutional reluctance on the Royal Navy's part to tangle with pirates - perhaps resulting from the terrible embarrassment the service suffered last year at the hands of Iranian Revolutionary Guards not much better equipped?

Perhaps. Your correspondent recently spoke off the record to a lately-retired admiral who said that the once-aggressive Service culture has been "shockingly" undermined in the modern era - and who advocated compulsory viewings of Master and Commander for all hands.

That certainly chimes with my personal experience transiting the Bab-el-Mandeb at night some years back. Even then it was a piracy hotspot, and there were two schools of thought as to the proper posture to be adopted by our group of warships.

One school viewed the fact we were transiting at night, and so might perhaps be mistaken for merchantmen, as an opportunity. This group suggested that we should adopt deceptive lighting and break up our formation to encourage such a mistake, man the guns and issue weapons. This would offer at least some chance of bagging some buccaneers red-handed.

An opposing group felt that this kind of thing might delay us on our way to scheduled training exercises, and that we could ill afford any damage or mess. This group preferred instead that we floodlight our upper works to make clear we were warships and maintain a tight and rigid formation as well. In this way we would ensure that if any pirates were about, they would be sure to attack someone else.

Funnily enough, the second school of thought was led by the task group commanding officer, apparently seconded by most of his captains, and we went with the more timid plan.

Possibly things have changed, and COs nowadays - as the MoD claims - take "proactive" action without having to be prodded, confident that the legendary aggression and fighting spirit of the Royal Navy will always lead to victory - especially against a poorly-armed, ill-disciplined rabble of pirates. Perhaps they are champing at the bit to get stuck in, held back by limp-wristed Foreign Office diplomats.

But I doubt it. They already have all the legal powers they need to act - on the high seas at least, if not in Somali waters - without waiting on approval from London.

To me the whole thing about human rights and asylum seeking sounds like some shamefaced naval officer making up bullshit excuses. ®

* This be real seagoing piracy, d'ye see, not nerdsome digital copyright scurviness or suchlike lubberly doings.

Lewis Page was a Royal Navy officer from 1993 to 2004. In the year 2000, as first lieutenant of a minehunter, he had the chance to take in various garden spots like Djibouti, the Bab-el-Mandeb etc.

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