x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

A failure to protect victims of piracy

Twenty-two sailors are owed back wages for three years spent in the clutches of Somali kidnappers. Their company, and international maritime authorities, have let them down.

It is almost impossible to imagine the three-year tribulation of the crew of the cargo ship MV Iceberg I. The vessel was captured by Somali pirates in March 2010 and its crew were held, starved and tortured until December 23 last year, when they were freed by the Puntland Maritime Police Force after a 13-day gun battle.

Two crew members didn't make it out alive - one Yemeni sailor was so distraught that he jumped overboard; one officer simply disappeared in September 2011.

Many of the 22 survivors, from India and Ghana, are still suffering severe injuries. They include a sailor who had his ears cut off, one with bullet wounds that need daily attention and another who requires weekly hospital visits because of a spinal-cord injury. If their physical and emotional pain was not enough, the men have not been paid for almost three years. As The National reported yesterday, with medical bills to cover and families to support, these men are in dire straits.

The vessel is owned by Azal Shipping Company, which has an office in Dubai but has refused to comment. Clearly, the 22 crewmen are owed their back wages - at a minimum - as a matter of simple justice. However, like so many other ships plying the trade routes in this part of the world, the Iceberg is registered in Panama, and not subject to UAE law.

Here, the complexities of international maritime law come into play. The International Transport Workers' Federation, the union that represents seafarers, has said that the ship was not insured, and the financial status of Azal is unclear.

The ITF has called on the Panama government to "do the decent thing" and contribute to a relief fund for the Iceberg crew as part of its obligations to the International Maritime Organisation, the United Nations agency with responsibility for the safety and security of shipping. But ships fly the Panamanian colours, a so-called "flag of convenience", precisely because of the minimal regulatory control.

In recent years, some flag-of-convenience countries have tightened regulations in response to international opinion. The IMO clearly should bring more pressure to assure that sailors' wages are protected and that ships carry the appropriate insurance cover.

While there have been positive signs that the fight against piracy is being won, but it is imperative that its victims not be forgotten.