Piracy on the high seas was once endorsed as a legitimate activity that contributed to the rise of the European powers from the 16th century onwards. In fact, the quaint English phrase, “privateer", described a pirate in the service of the kingdom/state.

Today, piracy is recognized as one of the biggest threats to the global economy. By one estimate, international sea-borne trade accounted for around 95% of all global trade and was valued at $14 trillion in 2010. With its high prevalence around the Horn of Africa and the Straits of Malacca, piracy poses a risk to the economic re-emergence of China and India. Located between the Horn and the Straits, almost 90% (by volume) and 77% (by value) of India’s global trade is seaborne and, is particularly, vulnerable to this menace.

Piracy affects India directly in at least three ways. First is the hijacking of Indian-flagged ships as well as other vessels carrying its exports and imports. Second, given the significant number of Indians working in international merchant marine, their capture and efforts to either rescue or negotiate a release poses a conundrum for the authorities. Finally, as pirates sometimes operate off the Indian island territories, this has led to an increase in insurance premiums for ships plying through Indian waters. In addition, the potential nexus between piracy and terrorism was underlined by the 26/11 seaborne attack on Mumbai and the unfortunate shooting of Indian fishermen by Italian marines on board a merchant vessel. Clearly, India cannot address all of these challenges by itself.

Against this backdrop, the first-ever United Nations Security Council (UNSC) open debate on piracy organized by India during its presidency of the council was a significant effort to use multilateralism to support India’s fight against this scourge.

Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, tweeted that the debate “highlights that while the number of pirate attacks is dropping rapidly, even one hostage is too many". Similarly, India’s permanent representative to the UN, ambassador Hardeep Puri, noted that there was “little change in the level of violence employed by pirates against seafarers and others" and cautioned that “naval operations may not be sufficient".

Indeed, while there is unanimous support among all UN member states to counter piracy, there is lack of united effort. For instance, instead of a more effective single UN command for all naval operations off the coast of Somalia, there are currently at least three different groups operating independently, apart from several countries, including India, carrying on their own separate operations. The incident last year between a Pakistani and Indian warship during an anti-piracy operation highlights the dangers of this approach.

The Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia, which now has around 70 members and is currently chaired by India, has contributed to better coordination and has addressed some of the key differences among the various UN members.

However, more needs to be done to prosecute pirates, suppress financing and laundering of ransom money. In addition, the shipping industry needs to draw up common security protocols given that 20% of vessels that do not take counter piracy precautions are the ones that are targeted by pirates. This might also prevent a repeat of the shooting incident involving armed personnel.

India’s initiative in the waning days of its UNSC membership is a welcome, albeit belated, effort. It will be crucial for India to sustain its leadership of the multilateral endeavour to tackle piracy. This will not only serve its national security interest but may also strengthen its case for permanent membership of UNSC. How India will accomplish this in the near future remains to be seen.

W.P.S. Sidhu is a senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.

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