Piracy spiked in 2020, costing the global economy $818 million

Legal loopholes and culture of impunity spur pirates.

Piracy spiked in 2020, costing the global economy $818 million.
  • Piracy spiked in 2020, with the number of incidents reported up 20 percent to 195.
  • Globally, 135 crew were kidnapped from vessels in 2020 with most activity in West Africa and East Asia.
  • Shipping companies are calling for more military support and increased patrols.

Through 2020 almost all of the countries in the world closed their land, sea, air and river borders to stop the spread of COVID-19, which has infected more than 96 million by January 2021. However, neither the virus nor the measures to try to contain it put much of a dent on criminal activity in the high seas.

The number of incidents of piracy spiked 20 percent in 2020, according to the International Chamber of Commerce’s IMB Piracy Reporting Centre (PRC) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Despite slowdowns in trade and a drastic drop in flights and cross-border travel, there were 195 incidents of piracy through the year, up from 162 in 2019.

With 90 percent of the world’s cargo moving by sea, piracy can be costly to the global economy. The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates the costs of piracy at $818 million last year.

Pirates were most active in West Africa, off the coasts of Nigeria and Benin, as well as off the coast of Indonesia and in the Singapore Straits in Asia. There was also an unprecedented surge in kidnappings aboard vessels transiting the Gulf of Guinea.

“Globally, 135 crew were kidnapped from their vessels in 2020, with the Gulf of Guinea accounting for over 95 percent of crew numbers kidnapped. A record 130 crew members were kidnapped in 22 separate incidents,” said ICC.

Weak legal deterrents

Piracy spiked in 2020 but is an old problem in the Gulf of Guinea but political instability in West Africa and a weakening of the region’s economy may have contributed to a surge in maritime crime.

“Factors such as weak legislative frameworks, poor governance, economic and political insecurity all serve to empower well-established criminal groups who are highly capable and intent on conducting financially motivated criminal activities,” says Dryad Global, a maritime risk intelligence firm in London, UK.

Dealing with the problem of piracy is difficult and comes up against a culture of impunity. Criminals often benefit from legal gaps in maritime and criminal laws in many countries and there are very, very few successful prosecutions.

UNODC “identified significant gaps with only a few countries having a sufficiently robust legal framework allowing for the effective prosecution of cases of piracy,” the UN agency said in a statement in October 2020 after noting  the surge in piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.

“In addition, weak domestic justice systems and the absence of procedures for the collection as well as for the handover of evidence rendered effective legal action against piracy and other maritime crime unnecessarily complex.”

Piracy spiked in 2020

Logistics companies are increasingly looking for more support from the world’s militaries. Denmark’s A.P. Moller – Maersk (Maersk), one of the giants of global shipping, has been particularly loud in its calls for military support to limit the risk to its fleets.

The Gulf of Guinea, a piracy hotspot.

“It is unacceptable in this day and age that seafarers cannot perform their jobs of ensuring a vital supply chain for this region without having to worry about the risk of piracy. The risk has reached a level where effective military capacity needs to be deployed,” a spokesperson at the Danish company told Bloomberg News.

Maersk´s fleet suffered one piracy attack in December 2020 and another in January 2021 in the Gulf of Guinea. Trained crews managed to avert both attacks.

The piracy situation is improving in the Gulf of Aden, in Africa’s east coast. The region has long been a favorite of pirates but dozens of countries have deployed their militaries to keep pirates in check.

In mid-January, China deployed the 37th Escort Task Force of the People’s Liberation Army to safeguard maritime cargo in transit through the Gulf of Aden.

Navies from countries like the U.S., France, Germany, Thailand, India, Russia and South Korea, to name a few, regularly patrol the gulf.

“The positive actions by the Navies, including pre-emptive and disruptive counter piracy tactics, has resulted in a drop in the number of attacks,” said ICC, which counted zero piracy incidents in a region that was once the most affected by piracy in the world.

This does not mean that the pirates have disappeared. Many have moved to less secure waters, such as the Gulf of Guinea or around Indonesia, which are now the most affected in the world.

According to ICC, 25 attacks were recorded against vessels around Indonesia in 2020. Second most affected was the Singapore Straits with 22 attacks and the coast of Nigeria with 21 attacks registered in the Gulf of Guinea.


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