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How to Negotiate With Pirates

Are You Ready to Negotiate With Pirates for Weeks or Months?

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How to Negotiate With Pirates

The M/V Faina Under the Control of Somali Pirates

Photo by Jason Zalasky/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

On September 26th 2008 a Ukrainian cargo ship was seized by pirates 200 miles off the coast of Somalia. The cargo aboard consisted of battle tanks, rocket propelled grenades, and anti-aircraft weapons. The ship was held for ransom. More than four months later pirates escaped with over three million dollars but no weapons.

Avoid Negotiation With Pirates.

Even with advice from experts, the security plan of a ship may fail and allow pirates to board a vessel. The number and sophistication of pirate attacks each year continues to rise. Many of the attackers are deterred by well trained crews using existing shipboard equipment like fire hoses. Most of those that manage to get on board steal what they can from the ship and crew then depart quickly.

According to monthly Piracy Information Reports published by the IMO; hostage situations do occur but are a small portion of overall reported incidents.

What if you are Forced to Negotiate?

Some situations require negotiation. In the case of the Ukrainian vessel it was unacceptable to allow pirates to obtain the arms and ammunition on board. The military was faced with a choice of attacking the vessel and almost certainly causing casualties or allowing the demanded ransom to be paid.

Just one captured seafarer, when threatened with harm, can become the bargaining tool pirates use to take control of a ship.

The bulk freighter "Bet Fighter" a U.K. flagged vessel was attacked in August 2010 off the coast of Palau in the South China Sea. Six pirates armed with "long knives" were able to take control of the vessel by gaining access to the bridge. The Master was captured by pirates in his cabin. The pirates fled after stealing cash and property from the ship and crew.

Even though the pirates who attacked this ship had control of the bridge and Master they fled with little reward for their efforts. The need to negotiate depends on the goals of the pirates.
Know Your Enemy - Like all criminals, pirates have different definitions of success. Some are satisfied escaping with paint, lines, or safety gear; others set out to steal cash. Few seek a protracted ransom situation that may last for months.
Using reported information a Master can determine what is most commonly being stolen in a high risk area. If pirates do get on board the ship and take control it is best to know what they expect to gain.
Knowing the shore situation is also important. If a local resident earns the equivalent of $350 U.S. per year which is the case in Somalia. It is reasonable to think pirates will be satisfied with a small amount of cash and supplies. If they find valuable cargo, like the arms on the M/V Faina, demands will certainly increase.
The most dangerous situations occur when the pirates aren't able to satisfy their desires.
Negotiating for the Safety of Your Crew - Pirates who ransom ships use the safety of the crew as leverage. The informed Master and crew will be able to control their situation until a course of action can be determined and executed by responders.
Negotiation is a form of communication that can be verbal, but non-verbal actions are also a form of negotiation. Be careful about what you say and do.

Strategies for the Master

  • Make sure your crew knows they aren't expected to be heroes. An individual who attacks captors endangers everyone.
  • Allow the pirates to feel in control. People under stress are more likely to act irrationally and harm your crew.
  • Establish a regular routine for yourself and others. A routine is comforting, relives the stress of the unknown, and allows responders to plan a response more easily.
  • Mentally record details of the pirates. Subtly note appearance, command structure, clothing and equipment, subjects of conversation, and other things that may prove useful in negotiations. The information will also be valuable to investigators.
  • Be Patient

Strategies for the Crew

  • Don't antagonize your captors. Be cooperative. Someone is negotiating for you, don't undo their hard work.
  • Remember details about the pirates to share with investigators later.
  • Establish a routine. Eat, sleep, and groom yourself as regularly as possible. Try to include some distractions like reading or exercise. Some ransom situations last for months; your routine will help time pass more quickly.
  • Find areas of mutual interest with your captors. Respectfully relate your desire to be released.
  • Be Patient
  • When responders arrive get on the floor and stay there until the situation is neutralized.

When the Negotiations are Over - Be sure to get some rest and confront the experience as soon as possible. Being a hostage is traumatic, accept professional counseling if it is offered. The effects of stress may not appear until long after the incident is over.

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