By Martin Edwin Andersen, Editor-in-Chief, Piracy Daily
For Donna Hopkins, the U.S. State Department coordinator on counter piracy and maritime security, the news reporting about “pirates” attacking the C-Retriever, a U.S.-flagged oil platform supply vessel [pictured above], off the Nigerian coast and kidnapping two Americans may in fact be problematic.
“This is now a hostage case; its genesis may have been a pirate attack, but legally speaking, it is now kidnapping, not piracy,” Ms. Hopkins pointed out, explaining why the violent crime section of the FBI New York office is leading the investigation.
Her office has little direct involvement in the case, as it is not responsible for “routine” commercial matters and individual criminal acts committed against U.S. citizens, except to coordinate among internal stakeholders as required. The State Department’s role in hostage cases is principally to provide consular assistance, which can include issues such as due process and other advice and support to victims of serious crime overseas and their families, as well as visitation contact with incarcerated nationals.
The latest incident involving kidnapping at sea off Africa’s west coast, a fertile ground for maritime marauders, comes after the authoritative International Maritime Bureau (IMB) noted that in the first nine months of this year, 132 crew have been taken hostage and seven vessels hijacked.
In an interview at her office not far from the Potomac River, Ms. Hopkins agreed that under-reporting and non-reporting of such crimes makes such statistics questionable, colored in large part by the perceptions and interests of the maritime sector of the booming oil industry.
At the same time, she added, because the situation has probably not in fact changed in many years, “We do not consider what is going on in West Africa to be a crisis; the recent event is getting more press than usual because two Americans were taken.”
She added: “We think maritime crime in the region could be controlled with greater effort by littoral governments in the region, and we are working to help them improve their capacity to do so.”
Asked about the how the enormous dangers posed at one time by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden compared to what is going on how, Ms. Hopkins underscored that, “The situation has not gotten to that state in the Gulf of Guinea, nor do I think it will.”
“Geography, society and politics are so much different” in and around Somalia, compared to that in West Africa, she noted.
Asked about news reports that, unlike in Somalia where pirate groups are losing popularity among the population, significant sectors in West Africa—specifically in Nigeria—support maritime crime, Ms. Hopkins said that “perhaps small slices” of local populations have rallied in defense of local pirates and others.
Most of these, she said, pertained to activist groups opposed to how international companies extract resources in ways that offer little benefit to local populations. In addition, some benefit from the rampant oil theft and other coast criminal activity, but there is nothing coming close to widespread popular support in these countries for organized oil theft.
The chair of the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia added that among the “lessons learned” from the Somali experience was the value added by non-traditional lines of communication.
The Somali piracy issue, Ms. Hopkins said, “has served as a catalyst to open up lines of communication between the maritime industry and foreign governments, with a open architecture of shareholders in the Contact Group (what others might call a ‘whole-of-government, whole-of-society’ approach), potentially making maritime management a healthier place.”
Asked about another issue, the recent decision by the Putin government in Russia to back away from charging protesting Greenpeace activists with being “pirates,” she replied simply: “Mr. Putin got it right when he said it was not piracy. Give him credit for that.”
The maritime challenges faced off West Africa, in Russia and in India, among other places, Ms. Hopkins concluded, show that, in many ways, “Oceans are, for our world, in a way the last frontier.”
© Martin Edwin Andersen, 2013, all rights reserved. “Donna Hopkins, U.S. counter-piracy chief, takes aim at Gulf of Guinea maritime crime,” may be copied and distributed with attribution to Martin Edwin Andersen and Piracy Daily.