HL Deb 18 July 1995 vol 566 cc110-2

2.58 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress has been made in international co-operation designed to reduce piracy in the seas of South-East Asia and the Far East.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Chalker of Wallasey)

My Lords, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) is the competent international body that considers maritime safety. At a meeting at the IMO in May, the Indonesian delegation announced further measures in tackling the problem of attacks on shipping in their waters, including an increase in sea patrols, made jointly with Singapore police. IMO officials have also raised the problems with the Chinese authorities.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for her reply. It is my impression that the situation has improved since the last occasion on which I raised the subject in the House. May I ask whether British authorities have considered two disquieting incidents this year, when ships with valuable cargoes were hijacked while on lawful voyages by the crews of Chinese patrol boats, apparently acting as privateers? As the pretext of prevention of smuggling was palpably bogus, were not those Chinese sailors guilty of piracy?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, under the Law of the Sea Convention, acts of piracy committed by a government ship whose crew has mutinied and taken control of the ship are, in the words of the convention, assimilated to acts committed by a private ship". We are not aware that this happened in the case that my noble friend cites. However, there is absolutely no doubt that there are occasions when boats are stopped by persons who look like officials, indeed may be officials, their cargoes snaffled, the boats held in some far off port, and no one hears any more about it. That is a problem on which the IMO is working very hard at present.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is any strict action being taken by those countries concerning unofficial ships pretending to be members of those countries? Will there be a conference, perhaps headed by our nation, the nations which the noble Baroness mentioned, the British Commonwealth of Nations and the United States of America, to bring about a forceful end to this cruel piracy?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I do not know whether there is need for a further conference. In 1993 the United Kingdom took part in an IMO experts group with Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines. They visited South-East Asia. The United Kingdom was one of the main players behind the IMO resolution on piracy which followed. The joint patrols which now take place are a result of that initiative. If there is need for further action, we shall certainly take it. We continue to support the co-ordination of international action against piracy.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, serious as the threat of piracy undoubtedly is, is there not an even greater risk to peace from conflicting claims to the Spratly Islands and their oil and fishery resources? Will the Government take steps to refer those conflicts and disputes to the International Court of Justice?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, the issue of the Spratly Islands is a long way from piracy and the International Maritime Organisation. However, it is important that we understand that islands in dispute, whether in the China Sea or anywhere else in the world, should go to international bodies to have those disputes resolved peaceably. That is an approach that we have always supported.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, we support the fact that the International Maritime Organisation is the appropriate organisation to deal with these issues. However, can the Minister indicate how many British ships during the past 12 months have been subjected to piracy of this kind?

Is the noble Baroness also aware that the union dealing with officers, NUMAST, has been making representations to the Government over many years for effective action to be taken? Do any of the nations involved in carrying cargoes in that area permit their seafarers to carry arms?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, certainly the IMO and the International Maritime Bureau's regional piracy centre in Kuala Lumpur report that attacks against shipping worldwide decreased in 1994 from a peak in 1992. The IMB has suggested that within those figures incidents both in South-East Asia and off the coast of Brazil have increased. Therefore we are seeking all ways of achieving the effective action which NUMAST requests. Certainly there is no sense in which we are prepared to let the matter slip. At the IMO meeting in May, it was agreed that the IMO should produce summary lists of attacks on a monthly basis rather than quarterly, and that those should be followed up promptly.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, the Minister did not answer the final part of my question. Is she aware that any of the advanced maritime nations permit their seafarers to be armed in order to resist acts of piracy?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I am not aware which nations permit their seafarers to be armed and which do not. However, it is well known that a number of nations probably do not permit their seafarers to carry arms, but whose seafarers do.

Lord Geddes

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that for those who live in Asia or who sail in Asian waters, the term "Far East" is regarded as derogatory? Indeed, from their point of view we live in the Far West.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I hope that I have said on each occasion "South-East Asia". In no way do I intend to be derogatory; I only wish demographically to be a little more correct than I might otherwise be.

Lord Greenway

My Lords, while recognising that the Question refers specifically to the East, has there not been a disturbing increase in incidents of piracy in Somalia and around the Horn of Africa recently? As the noble Baroness mentioned Brazil, could we learn something from the action taken by the Government of Brazil as a result of representations made by international shipping bodies? The government have set up a security committee which over the past few months has had marked success in reducing incidents of piracy.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord is right. Where the acts of piracy have taken place, either on the high seas or in or just off the port of a country, as in Brazil, at the time that happened it reflected the generally poor security in nearby areas. However, when security overall in a country has improved, we see an improvement, as in the security in Brazil which the noble Lord mentioned.

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