March 15, 2011

Subcommittee Panel Examines US Response to Piracy

Washington, D.C. – The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation today held an oversight hearing on the United States response to piracy, particularly in the Horn of Africa region, and its effect on international shipping.

The Subcommittee received testimony from the following witnesses: Admiral Kevin Cook, Director of Prevention Policy for Marine Safety, Security, and Stewardship, United States Coast Guard; Mr. William Wechsler, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Counternarcotics and Global Threats, Department of Defense; Mr. Kurt Amend, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Political and Military Affairs, Department of State; and Mr. Stephen L. Caldwell, Director, Maritime Security and Coast Guard Issues, Government Accountability Office.

Below is the opening statement of U.S. Representative Rick Larsen (D-WA), Democratic Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, as prepared for delivery:

U.S. Representative Rick Larsen (D-WA), Democratic Ranking Member
Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation
Opening Statement at Hearing on
“Assuring the Freedom of Americans on the High Seas:
The United States Response to Piracy”
March 15, 2011

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and thank you for calling today's hearing.  Piracy, particularly off the Somalia coast, is a disruptive threat to world shipping.

Tragically, just last month, piracy also became deadly for Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey, California, and their friends, Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle of Seattle, Washington.  I extend my sympathies to their families.

These four individuals posed a threat to no one.  They were not even mariners involved in international trade.  The Adams were living their life-long dream.  Ms. Macay and Mr. Riggle were friends joining in the adventure.

While the circumstances of their deaths are still being investigated, we do know that they were killed by their Somali captors while their release was being negotiated.  But for these pirates, these four U.S. citizens would be alive and well today.  Today’s pirate is no Jack Sparrow.

Although piracy has been a threat to seafaring nations for thousands of years, the emergence of aggressive and persistent attacks off the Horn of Africa is especially concerning.

The killing of the four hostages aboard the Quest certainly increased the attention of the international community on piracy – and the international community has increased its focus on piracy.

The statistics are startling.  The New York Times reported in late February that more than 50 vessels were currently captive ranging from Thai fishing trawlers to European supertankers, with more than 800 hostages.  These 800 hostages represent mariners and seafarers that are only doing their jobs.

Once captured, these hostages can be held in deplorable conditions for months before release.  It is time for the international community to stop this injustice.

The Gulf of Aden and the adjoining Indian Ocean constitute a critical shipping corridor.  GAO’s September report on piracy states that over 33,000 ships pass through the Gulf of Aden annually.  This includes tanker ships moving 10 to 15 percent of world petroleum shipments.  For vessels headed west, the alternative route is around the tip of Africa and adds 4,900 nautical miles to the transit.

The rise of piracy in the region puts mariners in danger and poses an economic burden on ocean carriers and shipping companies.  In fact, according to a Chatham House report, insurance premiums in the London insurance market for ships traveling through the Gulf rose tenfold in 2008.  Fortunately, U.S. insurance rates have remained stable due to U.S. insurers not yet having to pay claims.

Several factors have contributed to the frequency of pirate attacks.  A larger number of high-value targets passing through the Gulf, global proliferation of the small arms trade, and most significantly, persistent civil violence, lawlessness, and economic dislocation in Somalia.

Any comprehensive international approach to combating piracy must address the current political situation in Somalia, it must be truly international, and it must be a solution that will be address piracy around the world.

Somalia does not have a functioning government.  With pirates having a virtually unlimited ability to operate from Somalia, piracy cannot be eliminated solely from the sea.  I am particularly interested to hear what the State Department witness will say on this subject.

Last week, Bloomberg reported that China and Russia are leading a new effort at the United Nations to curb the threat of piracy off the coast of Somalia and defeat al-Qaeda-linked terrorists fighting to seize control of that nation.

According to the report, Russia has circulated a draft resolution that would commit the UN Security Council to “urgently” begin talks on creation of three courts for piracy cases.  The measure also would urge construction of two prisons for convicted pirates, and demand that all nations enact laws to criminalize piracy.

The international community has stepped up efforts to combat piracy. Combined Task Force 151, the multi-national effort joined by the U.S, the European Union Operation ATALANTA, NATO, which the U.S. also supports, and independent states are patrolling the area and providing greater protection to ships traveling through the Gulf.

The International Maritime Bureau's Piracy Reporting Center and MARAD have helped inform the maritime community about piracy and how to implement best practices for ships to evade and defend themselves from pirate attacks.

I look forward to discussing these international efforts with our witnesses.

GAO’s report from last September discusses several challenges and describes a mixed bag of success.

  • Prosecution of alleged pirates remains logistically difficult, although I note that on February 16, the pirate associated with the attack on the Maersk Alabama was sentenced to 33 years by a New York district judge.
  • The pirates have greatly expanded their area of attacks to an area as large as the lower 48 States.
  • There has been a steady increase in the number of attacks, even as the rate of success declines.
  • The number of hostages being held is increasing.
  • There are more ransoms being paid at increasing amounts. 

These issues raise important questions for our panel. 

  • Are the efforts of the U.S. and the international community succeeding or failing?
  • Are the rules of engagement changing?
  • In light of the recent killings, is transit in the area more or less dangerous? 

When it comes to piracy in the 21st century, there is no X that marks the spot to point us in the right direction.  But, there are several ways that U.S. policymakers can help combat piracy:

  • Encourage the international commercial maritime industry to adopt best practices;
  • Continue advances in the use of defensive technologies;
  • Help coastal states in pirate-prone areas boost their coastal monitoring and interdiction capabilities; and,
  • Provide resources to the Coast Guard and MARAD so they can continue to advise the industry on how to strengthen its own security. 

Mr. Chairman, I thank you again for holding this hearing. I look forward to discussing these issues with the panel, and assessing how government and non-government entities can increase security and decrease opportunities for piracy, and help the maritime community navigate this serious issue.