02 July 2009

US House passes piracy amendment

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AN AMENDMENT that requires the US Department of Defence to provide military personnel on US-flag ships carrying government cargoes through piracy-prone waters has passed the US House of Representatives.

Congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland sponsored the amendment to the National Defence Authorisation Act, which contains this language.

It follows up on a strong hint issued by Mr Cummings at a subcommittee hearing in May that lawmakers under his guidance would take this matter into their own hands if the US Department of Defence and the US Coast Guard did not come up with a similar plan.

Mr Cummings, who chairs the House Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee, said: “It is truly preferable to prevent an incident from occurring rather than to respond to a hostage situation.

“We are talking about only providing security to US-flag vessels carrying US government cargoes operated by US citizens. Surely, we can provide that.”

The US Senate now needs to pass its own version of the Defence Authorisation Act that retains the language regarding piracy, and the two versions then need to be melded into a final Bill before it becomes law.

The House amendment requires the US Secretary of Defence to “embark military personnel on board a US-flag vessel carrying government-impelled cargoes if the vessel is operating in an area designated by the US Coast Guard or the International Maritime Bureau of the International Chamber of Commerce as an area of high risk of piracy”.

Such personnel will also mandatorily be embarked on ships that the USCG determines to be at risk of being boarded on pirates. The Bill does not mention specific regions.

The issue of armed support for US merchant crews came into the US spotlight following the April piracy incidents involving the Maersk Alabamaand Liberty Sun.

As the House and the Senate held hearings, the passionate and firebrand Mr Cummings emerged as a champion of US merchant mariners.

In May he took the DoD, US Navy, and USCG to task for leaving US mariners to fend for themselves. He said the USCG’s otherwise well-regarded piracy directive issued to US shipowners amounted to instructions to mariners on how to protect themselves without committing government resources.

In his statement in support of his amendment, Mr Cummings said that the Pentagon has been reluctant to have military ships patrol the waters off Somalia because of the vastness of the area and the ineffectiveness of such an approach.

Republican Congressman Buck McKeon from California, in his objection to Mr Cummings’ amendment, said: “Commercial shipping lines bear responsibility to secure their cargoes and should not be given free US military protection everywhere in the world.”

The US does not have enough military resources for the specialised job of protecting US vessels, Mr McKeon argued.

Mr Cummings said the issue is more manageable than that. The US Maritime Administration estimates that 54 US-flag vessels transit the Horn of Africa region in a year. Of these, about 40 would carry US food aid cargoes, and 44 have the ability to carry military cargoes.

“Only a handful of these vessels, fewer than 10 in a three-month period, are estimated to be at serious risk of attack by pirates due to their operating characteristics,” Mr Cummings said.

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