Question: How do you make a meeting of a slow-moving, little-known and largely powerless United Nations agency into a sexy event?

Answer: pirates!

The 90th session of the International Maritime Organization’s Maritime Safety Committee, under way in London, will cover much territory, including passenger-ship safety (“Remember the Costa Concordia”), standards for voyage data recorders and the protection of crew members’ hearing from engine noise.

But the big topic is piracy, not just off the coast of Somalia -- where there were 237 attacks last year, up from 219 in 2010 -- but increasingly off western Africa, South America and Southeast Asia. The incidents cost the shipping industry, insurers, navies and law enforcement more than $7 billion in 2010.

Navies cannot efficiently police an Indian Ocean danger zone that is larger than Western Europe. The European Union forces’ aerial attack on a pirate supply line on the Somali coast on Tuesday was a swashbuckling raid, but will have little long-term benefit.

Increasingly, shipping companies have turned to private security. That may account for the Somali pirates’ decreasing effectiveness. While the number of attacks was up in 2011, the pirates succeeded in hijacking only 28 vessels last year, as opposed to a record 49 in 2010, according to the International Maritime Bureau, a division of the International Chamber of Commerce.

Liability and Reputation

Yet these rent-a-Marines have become a mixed blessing. A video of guards haphazardly firing at suspected pirates from the deck of the cargo ship Avocet has recently set off a round of second-guessing by ship owners worried about liability and the industry’s reputation, as well as the possibility that pirates will adopt more violent tactics.

Given the hodgepodge of flag-state, shore-state and port-state laws that ships encounter on a long voyage, there is no way to standardize the training and actions of private security personnel. (As of now, security teams sometimes have to dump their weapons overboard before entering a jurisdiction with strict gun-control laws.) The shipping industry is effectively self-regulating, and often opts for the lowest common denominator in terms of ethics. A proposal coming before the IMO this week, however, could supply a needed framework on anti-piracy measures.

The Baltic and International Maritime Council -- whose members represent about 65 percent of global tonnage -- and the International Organization for Standardization are proposing a standard for accreditation and certification of private maritime-security companies. The guidelines could cover everything from rules of engagement to the management of firearms to training in lifesaving. The IMO should support the initiative, and push for a global convention that would create a legal structure for prosecuting open-water piracy -- a Hague for the High Seas.

Shipping companies can also be encouraged to come to their own rescue. Outrunning the threat is an option. There has never been a report of a successful attempt by pirates to board a ship moving at greater than 18 knots (33 kilometers per hour). But many cargo ships cannot maintain or even reach such speeds, and doing so over the long haul can be expensive. Owners claim that given high fuel costs, maintaining maximum speeds can cost $50,000 to $200,000 a day -- more than hiring guards for the entire voyage.

Fortress for Crew

It may be futile to expect shippers to run at full speed through an entire danger zone, as recommended in the industry’s current Best Management Practices. Rather, with better information sharing among the various navies in the Indian Ocean and timely assessments of pirate action from risk consultants and shipping companies themselves, ships’ masters can learn what particular areas to avoid or speed through.

Too often the ships are sitting ducks for the relatively lightly armed pirate gangs. Modern designs and retrofitting should incorporate so-called citadels on board: safe rooms equipped with food, water and other needs for a fixed period. Potentially, the crew could remotely operate cameras, water cannons, high-frequency sound weapons and tear gas. In general, military forces will not board a captured ship if they suspect that pirates and hostages are intermingled; if the crew is in a citadel, the raid is on. Pirates know this as well as anyone, and might move on to easier prey.

In the end, the only “cure” for Indian Ocean piracy will be stability and economic growth in Somalia. Not even the strongest citadel afloat can hold out till that distant day. But a global agreement among owners and global bodies like the IMO on standards and practices can make the wait less dangerous and costly.

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