Annual Presentation of the AMVER Awards

Andrew J. Shapiro
Assistant Secretary, Political-Military Affairs
International Propeller Club of the United States, International Port of Piraeus, Greece/Atlantic Merchant Vessel Reporting (AMVER) Dinner Awards
Athens, Greece
October 22, 2009

Thank you, Ambassador Speckhard, for that kind introduction. And thank you, President Pappadakis and General-Secretary Foros, for inviting me to celebrate the annual presentation of the AMVER awards here tonight. It is a privilege to be here with the distinguished members of the International Propeller Club and my colleague Rear Admiral Brice-O’Hara.

I know I don’t have to remind you of how serious the threat of piracy is to international commerce. But in case others have forgotten, the pirates’ seizures of the past few days serve as a grave reminder of the importance of our collective efforts. As Secretary of State Clinton has said, piracy may be a 17th Century problem, but it requires a 21st Century solution.

This is a particularly appropriate venue for me to discuss the shared and continuing challenge of piracy. Ambassador Speckhard, Admiral Brice-O’Hara and I represent a seafaring nation that is committed to freedom of navigation, the safety of mariners, and international commerce. And, of course, we are here together in the capital of a nation whose heritage and culture have been bound up with the sea for over five-thousand years.

But before I discuss piracy off the coast of Somalia, permit me to say a few words about the AMVER system, and the strategic relationship between the United States and Greece.

The AMVER system, sponsored by the U.S. Coast Guard, is rooted in the ancient tradition of mariners helping fellow mariners in distress. It was inaugurated in 1958 with a humanitarian mandate limited to the North Atlantic. But it has grown over the decades. Today, AMVER is the only worldwide ship reporting system. Its life-saving reach extends to the seven seas. Approximately nineteen thousand ships from over one hundred forty nations participate in AMVER. The AMVER Center tracks more than one-hundred thousand voyages annually. More than two-thousand lives have been saved over the last two decades thanks to AMVER.

Greece has earned 862 AMVER awards, more than any other country in the world. I thank everyone in this room whose efforts have contributed to earning Greece such an enviable and honorable distinction.

I am here tonight because Greece is a key shipping power and a geo-strategically important country at the crossroads of Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Greek ship owners control over one sixth of the world’s merchant marine fleet by tonnage, and are a vital part of our globalized economy. The United States and Greece have longstanding historic, cultural, economic, and social ties. Our relationship is bolstered by our alliance in NATO and our commitment to the shared value of democracy, a gift Greece gave to the world. We stood shoulder to shoulder in every major conflict of the 20th century. Today we continue that tradition.

Greece participates in NATO’s United Nations-mandated mission in Afghanistan. Greece also makes a substantial contribution to NATO’s peacekeeping force in Kosovo, and has been a valuable contributor to the UN’s peacekeeping mission in Lebanon. We appreciate greatly the contributions and sacrifices Greece has made in these theaters.

Tonight I want to talk about shared, 21st Century approaches to combating piracy. Reducing the success rate of pirate attacks is critically important to the international community and to Greece in particular.

Greece has been important in the fight against piracy, providing the flagship and command for the first six months of the European Union’s “Atalanta” counter-piracy mission off of Somalia. The United States also commends the participation of the Greek frigate “HS Navarinon” in NATO’s counter-piracy Standing Maritime Group 2 in support of Operation Ocean Shield.

Tonight I would like to share my government’s views on five key aspects of piracy:

  • international cooperation;
  • the impacts of piracy;
  • ransom payments;
  • prosecution of suspected pirates; and
  • establishing internationally recognized best management practices to thwart pirate attacks.

Greece is an important participant in the international Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia. This voluntary, ad hoc international forum encourages countries, organizations, and industry groups with an interest in combating piracy to work together. So far, 45 nations, including the United States and Greece, and seven international organizations, participate in the Contact Group. Two major maritime industry groups – BIMCO and INTERTANKO – participate as Observers.

On the eve of the Contact Group’s meeting in September, the United States and several participants signed the New York Declaration. Although Greek representatives were not in a position to sign the Declaration last month, this is an appropriate venue for me to say a few words in support of it.

The Declaration is a non-binding political commitment by countries to encourage their registered vessels to implement internationally recognized best management practices to avoid, deter, or delay acts of piracy. For the United States, these best management practices are understood to include guidance produced by the International Maritime Organization, and by the shipping industry and labor.

If all commercial fleets worldwide were to adopt the self-protection measures called for in the New York Declaration, we would be in a much better position to further reduce the success rate of pirate attacks.

As you know, there have been 10 ships hijacked since 2005 where Greek nationals were considered the beneficial owner.

Piracy off the Horn of Africa endangers the lives of mariners who sail those waters and poses a threat to international commerce that transits that region. It also interferes with the humanitarian delivery of vitally-needed food to some 23 million starving people in East Africa, as well as food destined for hungry people in South Asia.

As we all know, pirates use deadly force to seize vessels. In the Horn of Africa region several mariners have been killed by pirates and many others are missing. Even as we speak tonight, the crews of seven commercial vessels remain hostage at gunpoint.

If we are to successfully counter the threat of piracy, we must understand what could attract pirates to risk their lives on the high seas despite the presence of an international coalition of warships.

Pirates continue to operate for multiple reasons. The chance to obtain vast sums of money from ransoms. The chance that even if caught red-handed, they may escape prosecution and be released, even when there is sufficient evidence to prosecute. And the willingness of unscrupulous entrepreneurs to advance money to them so that they may purchase more boats, weapons, and other devices to attempt new assaults. In short: pirates are willing to take risks because they expect profits and anticipate impunity.

The U.S. position on ransoms is firm and unequivocal: we make no concessions of any kind to hostage takers or pirates. We strongly advocate that policy to other governments and the private sector. Every ransom paid further institutionalizes the practice of hostage-taking and funds its expansion. Every ransom paid raises the expectations of pirates.

Governments and carriers should share in resisting pirates’ efforts to benefit from the receipt of ransoms. We acknowledge the dilemma that shipowners face when sailors are taken hostage. And we endeavor to work with and provide assistance to private entities involved in managing such crises.

Another challenge is that too many countries victimized by piracy do not prosecute suspected pirates when they are apprehended, even when there is strong evidence to support a successful case. Some countries claim that their national laws do not cover acts of piracy. However, there is no legal impediment to countries prosecuting pirates in their domestic courts. Piracy is perhaps the most well-recognized universal crime. Therefore every nation can and should empower its courts to prosecute pirates, especially when they attack their interests.

Those countries that are prosecuting suspected pirates should not have to shoulder the burden alone. Recently, the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia approved the creation of an international trust fund to help defray the expenses of pirate prosecutions. The commercial shipping industry can contribute to that trust fund. Ninety-two cents of every dollar that is donated will directly support pirate prosecutions or other Contact Group initiatives. Donors will be able to designate donations to a specific case or project.

For its part, the United States is being true to its maritime traditions. We continue to press affected countries to prosecute those who attack their ships, take their sailors as hostages, or seize their cargo. We have brought a suspected pirate to our own country to be prosecuted for an alleged act of piracy against the U.S.-registered “Maersk Alabama.” Furthermore, since January the United States has sent nine military servicemembers to Kenya to provide testimony and support piracy prosecutions there.

The availability of witnesses who can provide testimony at trials of alleged pirates is essential. Allowing competent authorities access to vessels, manifests, and other records can also contribute to the successful prosecution of pirate suspects. So it is important that commercial shipping companies whose ships and crews have been attacked by pirates support the prosecution of their attackers.

The individuals involved in piracy often operate outside formal institutions, conducting their transactions in cash. The United States seeks to work with others to use existing tools and develop new ones in order to disrupt pirate financial flows.

But this cannot be a unilateral effort. The international community should work cooperatively to trace and track these flows. This information should be used not only to seize pirates’ proceeds, but also to locate, investigate, prosecute, and convict the individuals operating within these illicit financial networks.

We need to develop strategies to discourage piracy as an enterprise. My country is already taking steps to work with other countries and institutions to identify and disrupt these illicit financial networks.

The ultimate aims of the United States are to work with the international community to eradicate piracy off the Horn of Africa, stabilize Somalia, and ensure regional security. Through bilateral cooperation with allies such as Greece, and with the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia, we can eliminate the pirates’ financial incentives, halt their depredations, and secure the seaways off the Horn of Africa.

Congratulations to tonight’s deserving award recipients. And President Pappadakis and General-Secretary Foros, thank you again for inviting me to speak this evening.