The Double Standards of Maritime Trade


Somali pirates on the deck of the seajacked ship Zen Hua 4, 2008. Image: Reuters

The world is waging war against the pirates of Somalia. Hundreds of warships are patrolling the waters around Somalia to secure the maritime trade. When you realize 90% of the world's goods are transported over sea, imagine the threat piracy poses to the supply chain of the global economy. In Double Standards we see a different side to the stories about piracy: the seajacked ships and the companies behind them.

April 2010, Dutch marines board the German vessel MV Taipan, after it was seajacked by Somali pirates. Image: AFP

Piracy in Somalia started when warlords ousted dictator Siad Barre after a 22-year rule. The absence of a functioning government brought foreign fishing vessels to Somali waters to illegally empty its fishing grounds. Somali warlords struck deals with European companies to dump chemical waste in Somali waters. The evidence surfaced after the 2004 tsunami when dozens of containers with toxic waste washed up on the Somali shores, causing immense health problems for the local fishing communities. The fishermen took up weapons and started defending their fishing grounds against illegal fishing and waste dumping by foreign vessels. Skirmishes led to seajackings, which turned out to be a much more lucrative trade than fishing. Soon the self-proclaimed ‘civil coast guards’ became a professional criminal enterprise. Piracy went to become a million dollar industry with investors from Dubai with pirates using satellite phones and GPS devices.

How do you seajack an oil tanker?

When pirates spot a target, small pirate boats (skiffs) set out with RPG-launchers and machine guns to the vessel, shooting and threatening until the ships stops and is ready for boarding. When a ship is captured it is taken to the Somali coast and held until the ship owner pays a ransom for the ship and crew. Ransom money can run up to $4 million or more, depending on cargo. If you consider the cargo of a full oil tanker is worth $200 million, a $4 million ransom for crew and ship doesn’t seem that unreasonable. In 2008, there were 111 attacks of which 42 were successful seajackings. When you consider 22,000 merchant vessels pass the coast of Somalia every year, the amount of seajacked ships is small but its earnings high. In the peak year 2010, pirates earned $238 million in ransom money.

New flag designs for nine of the seajacked ships.

There is no such thing as free shipping

We should not underestimate the importance of maritime trade, which accounts for 90% of all international trade. Annual turnover of the industry is an estimated $8 trillion. The Dutch depend heavily on maritime trade with Rotterdam as Europe's largest port, and with Dutch companies like Shell oil there are significant offshore interests. When Somali pirates started to pose a threat to the shipping industry, the Dutch government sent warships with drones and helicopters, and stationed marines on Dutch commercial ships. Not just the Dutch, almost every country in the world has sent their navy to Somalia to protect maritime trade. Annually the world spends $2 billion to fight piracy, which is twice the amount as was spent on aid to fight the famine that hit Somalia and the horn of Africa in 2010.

Left: Somali pirate 2010. Right: Dutch pirate Willem II van der Marck Lumey, leader of the Sea Beggars (1542-1578)

Qua Patet Orbis*

In the Netherlands, the use of military force in Somalia to protect maritime trade is widely supported by politicians, while military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq led to strong debates. With the stories of a Dutch navy fighting pirates, a nationalist sentiment reemerged of the 17th century golden age when the Dutch were the most powerful seafaring nation. The Dutch were heavily involved in piracy as well at the time. The Watergeuzen (water beggars) were rebels who attacked and plundered Spanish ships. These Dutch rebels were essentially pirates that ultimately helped to drive out the Spanish occupants and established Dutch independence. During colonial times, the Dutch used licensed pirates called privateers. These ‘legal pirates’ were given government licenses to attack and capture enemy ships. Navy operations in Somalia today resonate well with the Dutch in the narrative of the reemergence of a global maritime power. The reality of the conflict is a much more complex situation with a global south that supplies labor and raw materials, but does not share in the wealth created by it.

Double Standards publication. Printed on newspaper stock and hand-bound with flag rings. Design: Ruben Pater.

Flags of Convenience

The maritime industry is a very competitive business. Consumers are looking for the lowest prices, and shipping transport is still the cheapest way to move cargo. By using a system called ‘flags of convenience’ the shipowners have found ways to cut corners and stay profitable. In reality the vast majority of commercial ships do not use the owner’s nationality but buy a ‘cheap flag’ from another country. This allows the ship owner to pay little or no taxes, dodge environmental regulations, and pay the crew a slave wage. For example the largest maritime fleets in the world are Panama and Liberia, although you will not find those vessels in their harbors. Ships can change nationality overnight with little paperwork. This allows shipowners to be anonymous and difficult to prosecute in civil and criminal actions.

For example, in 1999 the tanker MV Erika ran into a heavy storm, and spilled thousands of tons of oil off the coast of France, causing a major environmental disaster. The ship sailed under a Maltese flag, the oil belonged to the French company Total, the crew was Indian, the ship was operated by a shipping company registered in the Bahamas, and it was owned by two Italian companies. Through this administrative maze it was difficult to establish responsibility.

Double Standards publication, spreads.

Double Standards

The research for this project focused on international ocean-faring vessels that were ‘seajacked’ by Somali pirates between 2010 and 2012, based on the data of the International Maritime Bureau. The intent was to investigate each ship’s owner, nationality, cargo, and history to establish the nature of the maritime activity in relation to the acts of piracy. During the three years, 59 ships were seajacked of which only four used the actual ship owner’s. In many cases ship owners were based in tax havens like the Bahamas, and different shell companies set up for each vessel. The largest group of vessels was flagged in Panama and Liberia, and many were flagged in obscure small island states like the Marshall Islands, Antigua and Barbuda, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. While researching the ships and their owner companies, I encountered stories of fraud, illegal fishing, arms trade, and terrorism. Several ships directly violated UN sanctions. But by far the most common activity was tax dodging and maltreatment of the ships’s crews. While many shipping tycoons are living a life of luxury and excess, it is the ship’s crew that suffers most in the piracy conflict, with some crews being held hostage for many years. The research resulted in a publication and installation with the ship’s flags.

‘Unmapping the World’. Lisbon, Portugal, 2013. Photo: exhibition team.

Violent acts like piracy cannot be justified. Crew members have been tortured and died at the hands of the pirates. But it is absurd to think the complex problems that face one of the poorest countries in the world, can be solved by sending warships and soldiers. We should be aware which 'national economic interests' are secured by military intervention in Somalia. Illegality and fraudulent behaviour has infected the maritime industry with its flags of convenience, exploiting human labor, and dismissing environmental regulations for financial gain. This project clearly shows the moral voids this system has allowed to exist. Our need for cheap goods transported across continents appears more important than an ethically responsible maritime economy. The international community (EU, NATO, UN) not only justifies this behavior, but enforces it using military power.

‘International Poster and Design festival’. Chaumont, France, 2013.‘Who you gonna call’, Sandberg Institute graduation exhibition, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 2012.

Made as a graduation project at Sandberg institute master of graphic design, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Printing by Newspaperclub, Glasgow, United Kingdom. Binding by Binderij Hennink, Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Download the full publication and access more data on the project website.

* Qua Patet Orbis is the motto of the Netherlands Marine Corps, which translates to ‘As far as the world extends’.


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