On April 6, the Taiwanese fishing vessel Win Far 161 was hijacked by Somali pirates in waters north of the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, along with its crew of 30: the Taiwanese captain, engineer and 28 fishermen — five Chinese, six Indonesians and 17 Filipinos. Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) said it tried hard to rescue the crew, but was not able to offer further assistance because the pirates did not demand a ransom and because Taiwan has no diplomatic relations with Somalia. After that, news of the incident disappeared from the media and the memory began to fade. For a while, no one knew whether the crew were safe.
Then, on Aug. 27, the US Navy said Somali pirates had used the stolen Win Far 161 as a base ship for speedboat attacks on other vessels and that its captors had fired a rocket at a US Navy helicopter. The US Navy said one of the targets of attacks launched from the Win Far 161 over the past 130-odd days was the US-flagged container ship Maersk Alabama, which was seized by pirates on April 10.
If it were not for this announcement, which attracted enough attention to be reported in some Taiwanese media, the public would probably have forgotten all about the Win Far 161.
The news, when it came, was both good and bad. The crew were reported to be safe. However, the fishermen might be used as human shields or forced to collaborate with the pirates.
Somali pirates chose to use the Win Far 161 as a base ship because it is a large fishing vessel weighing nearly 800 tonnes. The pirates have been using it for a long time now, but its navigation and maintenance are probably beyond their abilities.
Have the ship’s crew been forced to take part in some of the pirates’ actions by performing tasks such as steering the ship, maintaining its engine and using its radar system to help the pirates locate potential targets? Only the Taiwanese captain and engineer have the necessary skills.
Article 101, clause 2 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea includes within its definition of piracy “any act of voluntary participation in the operation of a ship or of an aircraft with knowledge of facts making it a pirate ship or aircraft.”
Under international law, all countries have complete jurisdiction over people who engage in such activities, and anyone who does such things may be charged with the crime of piracy.
If the Taiwanese on board have taken part in the pirates’ actions, will they be considered completely guiltless?
Of course, it may be argued in their defense that the crew were coerced by the pirates and were acting against their own will. Imagine their state of mind if they are forced to help the pirates use a stolen ship as a means of perpetrating criminal activities against other ships.
Looking back over this case, many developments have been frustrating. What is most difficult to accept is the seemingly inadequate actions and complacent attitude of MOFA.
The ministry says it has tried its best to locate the ship and rescue its crew through Taiwan’s representative office in South Africa and other avenues, but it never received a ransom demand from the pirates and was never able to get in contact with the crew.
MOFA’s perfunctory handling of the matter looks like an evasion of its responsibilities. Only after receiving news of the attack on the US Navy helicopter did MOFA announce that the ship and its crew were safe, despite being stuck on the far side of the Indian Ocean, and that the ship’s owners were waiting for the right moment to get them out.
Only then did the public find out that the crew were still alive.
However, in suggesting that the matter was now in the hands of the ship’s owners, is MOFA willing but unable to help, or is it simply unwilling?
The Spanish have a saying about fishermen: “Don’t just see the fish. It was brought to you by the blood and sweat of the fishermen.”
The story of the Win Far 161 will be even more tragic if fishermen pay for their catch not just with their blood and sweat, but with their lives.
Still, all is not lost. As long as we know the men are still alive, there is still a chance of saving them.
MOFA must reach out its hand to help the crew, either directly or through the ship’s owners, and test all avenues of negotiation.
Chiang Huang-chih is an associate professor at National Taiwan University’s Department of Law.
TRANSLATED BY JULIAN CLEGG
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