UK: Fate of ransom payments to pirates unclear

AP News
|
Posted: Jan 04, 2012 7:02 PM
UK: Fate of ransom payments to pirates unclear

Too little is known about the fate of millions of dollars in ransom money paid out to Somali pirates and too few hostage takers are being prosecuted, British lawmakers said Thursday in a sharply critical report.

Parliament's Foreign Affairs Select Committee warned that not enough work is being carried out to trace the route of payments, which topped $135 million in 2011, amid worries some money may be making its way into Britain's financial system.

The panel of legislators _ which held hearings with defense officials, maritime lawyers and piracy victims _ also found that more than eight out of ten suspected pirates captured off the coast of Somalia are released without trial.

"It is unacceptable that 2.6 million square miles (6.7 million square kilometers) of the Indian Ocean has become a no-go area for small vessels, and a dangerous one for commercial shipping. There is a clear need to take decisive action," committee chairman Richard Ottaway said.

Piracy is rife off the coast of Somalia, and ships are regularly hijacked in defiance of the international naval force that patrols the Indian Ocean. Figures released last month by the European Naval Force showed that more than 2,300 crew members had been taken hostage in the area since December 2008, with some 200 still thought to be in captivity.

Ransoms are routinely paid to secure hostages' release, and the lawmakers' panel said that latest figures from NATO show at least $135 million was paid out last year, compared to around $80 million in ransom payments handed to pirates in 2010.

"It is like being in a housing boom, where your estate agent adds on money for the next house in the street that he is selling," ex-marine and maritime lawyer Stephen Askins told lawmakers in a June hearing.

Lawmakers said that British authorities have been "disappointingly slow to take action on financial flows relating to ransom payments," claiming that little is known about those profiting from piracy.

Government officials had appeared uninterested in information from British firms involved in delivering ransoms to pirates, the report said.

Britain's Foreign Office said in a statement it has a "clear and long-standing policy of not making or facilitating substantive concessions to hostage-takers, including the payment of ransoms."

Though no laws prevent the payment of ransoms, Britain counsels firms against doing so "because we believe that making concessions only encourages future kidnaps," it said.

Lawmakers said the principle was laudable, but should not "extend to the point of failing to collect, analyze, and act upon information concerning ransom payments made by British companies or private individuals."

The ministry said action was being taken against those who finance piracy and to gain "improved understanding of the illicit financial flows of piracy."

Foreign Secretary William Hague said piracy off Somalia's cost "had grown into a major international problem, exacerbating the wider challenges we face in helping Somalia recover from conflict and drought."

The committee's report also called on Prime Minister David Cameron to clear up confusion over the use of weapons on British-flagged ships which encounter pirates.

Cameron in October authorized the ships to carry armed guards on some perilous routes, but did not fully explain what rules would apply on the use of lethal force by private security contractors.

"If a private armed guard on board a U.K. flagged vessel sees an armed skiff approaching at high speed, can the guard open fire?," Ottaway said. "The government must provide clearer direction on what is permissible and what is not."

Cameron will host an international conference in London next month aimed at helping Somalia tackle piracy, militancy and its humanitarian crisis.

"We will use the London conference on Somalia to chart a way forward on the future political direction of Somalia, the vital humanitarian effort and the international community's approach to tackling piracy," Hague said in a statement.