Saturday, March 23, 2013

Fog of War: Italian Marines

The made-for-television jingoism surrounding the Italian marines case has made dispassionate analysis of what went wrong nearly impossible. Anyway, here's my theory of how and why two Indian fishermen ended up dead on February 15 2012. 

Much of what happened can be traced back to an anti-piracy manual released nearly two years earlier. The document is titled "Best Management Practice 3: Piracy off the Coast of Somalia and Arabian Sea Area". It was published in June 2010 by an international consortium of merchant shipping organisations and federations. Insiders call it 'BMP3' for short. Among other things, the manual plotted 'high risk areas' for piracy, gave advice on identifying a potential pirate vessel and what to do during a pirate attack.

Let's start with its definition of a 'High Risk Area'. Before BMP3 came out, merchant ships followed guidelines set by BMP2 (released in 2009). BMP2 advised vessels to inform maritime security authorities 4-5 days before they entered the HRA. In 2009, this was defined as an "area bound by 12 degrees North or 58 degrees East or 10 degrees South" (yellow on map below).

In 2010, in Section 2.3, BMP3 updated the HRA to include an area "bounded by Suez to the North, 10°S and 78°E". The significant extension of the HRA is seen in the red area on the map. 

View High Risk Area for Somali Piracy in a larger map or zoom out for a better view.

Merchant vessels were now forced to sail right up to Indian territorial waters to avoid the expanded HRA. In doing so they would often encounter Indian fishing vessels. 
On February 15 2012, at the time of the fatal shooting, the Enrica Lexie was roughly 22.5 nautical miles off the Indian coast. This falls within the HRA as updated by BMP3 (and its successor, BMP4, published in 2011). 

Now that we know why the Enrica Lexie was sailing so close to India, let's examine why the Marines on board had their fingers on the trigger. Here's what BMP3 says about the nature of pirate attacks:
- Pirates typically attack using two or more skiffs (Section 4.1)
- Pirate attacks increase following the release of hostages or after bad weather when pirates are unable to sail. (Section 3.6)

Given this context, let's look at other regional events that occurred before the shooting: 
- The Indian Coast Guard and Navy had arrested pirates operating near the coast a whole year before this. In short, the extension of the HRA in BMP3 was perfectly valid.
 - Roughly three weeks before the shooting, on 25 January, US Navy SEALS killed 9 pirates during the rescue of two western hostages in Somalia. Merchant ships would have been wary of their comrades wanting to make up for the lost ransom money or those wanting to avenge their deaths.
 - Five days before the shooting, on February 10, Somali pirates seized the Free Goddess, a bulk carrier. One report of that hijacking notes that weather conditions were "improving", and that pirates were "leaving the coast in greater numbers". The same report notes that having armed security teams on board and implementing the BMP had deterred most attacks. 
Any merchant ship passing through the HRA that night would have been on high alert.
The courts now need to decide whether the Italian marines operated within the rules of engagement. If they opened fire without a warning, they should be held accountable for the deaths. If sentenced to prison, it would not be unprecedented for them to serve their jail term back home. However, given all the context, as far as I am concerned, February 15 2012 was a tragedy waiting to happen. 

I'll end this post with two thoughts:
1. The Indian government is now petitioning international authorities to have the 'High Risk Area' pushed out to 65 deg East. This will mean fewer merchant vessels sailing through areas where Indian fishermen operate. However, Somali pirates do not heed international law. Allowing ships to drop their guard in places where the pirates still operate may prove unwise. This threat affects not just human security but global commerce. The correct response would be to increase ship and air patrols in the region. UPDATE: It would also be prudent to create standard operating procedures for fishing boats when they encounter merchant vessels. These could include a range of measures such as warning lights/flags, moving out of the path of larger ships, knowing and using the appropriate response to warning signals from ship crews, etc.

2. There is some precedent when it comes to soldiers harming foreign civilians while serving abroad in peace time. 

- In 1998, a US Marine Corps jet severed a cable car line in Italy, sending 20 people falling to their deaths. The jet was flying out of Italy's Aviano Air Base, a NATO station. The pilots faced a military trial back home. They were found 'not guilty' for involuntary manslaughter, but guilty on charges of 'obstruction of justice' and 'conduct unbecoming of an officer' as they had destroyed video evidence from the flight. Both were dismissed from service (hat-tip Kabir Taneja).

- In 2001, a US spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet sent to intercept it off Hainan Island, killing the latter's pilot. A second Chinese jet forced the spy plane to land, following which the PLA detained the 24 US crew members. They were released 10 days later - without charges - after diplomats worked on a face-saving solution. 

- Closer to home, Indian soldiers were indicted for sexual misconduct while serving as UN peacekeepers in Congo. The army took disciplinary action against one jawan, while three other men, including a major, were accuses of failing to retain control of their men. None of the soldiers stood trial in Congo. All of them (many more were investigated) faced a court of inquiry back in India. (hat-tip Jaskirat Singh Bawa).

The point of highlighting these cases is to show that such incidents are not uncommon. Thankfully, calmer heads have prevailed in this case too. Let's hope they continue to do so.

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