The Save Our Seafarers Campaign – More a Hindrance, than a Help?

By Christian Bueger

Shipowners frequently wonder why the problem of piracy does not receive more political support and why not more public resources are spent to address the issue. One answer to this quandary is: public support. No convincing case has been made that the problem of piracy is in the public’s interest, that it is an issue that requires the money of taxpayers and cannot be dealt with by the shipping industry on its own.

A recent study of reporting on Somali piracy in the major international newspaper has shown that media reporting – crucial to win public support – does not present piracy as a problem of the public. International media largely presents piracy as a problem of economic security. Piracy is considered mainly as a concern of the shipping industry and mariners.[i] So far, “widespread public concern was not demonstrated” in the media, the study concludes.[ii]

The international shipping industry has made increasing efforts to raise the public profile of the piracy problem and to lobby for more support. A crucial device has been the campaign “Save our Seafarers” (SOS) launched in March 2011. If we follow the results of the study, then public campaigns such as SOS have not succeeded to convince their publics that piracy is a public concern. They have failed to make a case that piracy is more than an issue of commercial interests and a problem of a handful of corporations (which moreover, have hesitated to contribute as much as they could in tax). If such a case will not be made than it is unlikely that more public resources will be devoted to piracy. Even more worrying for global shipping, it carries the risk that the international naval missions will come to an end or will be significantly downscaled sooner or later. Yet, why has the SOS campaign failed so far to make such a case and win the public? One answer is obviously the lack of resources. Another answer is experience. Over the past decades, global shippers have been more busy to hide the nature of their business from an already “seablinded” public. This widespread culture of secrecy among the shipping industry as well as the exclusivity in the wider community of mariners is a hindrance in reaching out to the public. A third answer, which is the one I want to expand below, is to be found in the message the SOS campaign disseminates. As I will show below, the campaign is badly designed and might even be considered as counter-productive.

The SOS Campaign

To start with some background on the SOS campaign: it was launched in March 2011 with the objective to increase awareness to the problem of piracy and to lobby towards policymakers to increase the investments in counter-piracy. The campaign is financially carried and backed by the major international shipping associations, such as BIMCO, and the major P&I clubs. It is mainly an internet-based campaign. But promotional material has also been widely and globally disseminated, for instance, at international shipping events. Campaigning material as well as a banner is also available within the headquarters of the International Maritime Organization. By March 2012, 32.000 individuals have so far signed the letter of the campaign – which is everything but an impressive number. Leaving aside the advantages and disadvantages of such a type of campaign and the question of how well the campaigners use their resources, let us investigate the core messages of the campaign a bit closer.

The campaign has four main slogans[iii]:

  1.  “Stop Piracy. Act Now!”,
  2.  “Stop Disruption to World Shipping”
  3. “2,000 Somali Pirates are hijacking the World’s Economy
  4. “Oppose Kidnap and Torture of Innocent Seafarers”.

The first slogan is primarily a call for action, which adds some sense of urgency, but otherwise does not provide a reason for action. The other three are more interesting in this regards. The second and the third point us to an underlying economic paradigm. They emphasize that piracy is a problem because it affects “World Shipping” and the “World’s Economy”. The rationale is that piracy is a problem because it has (negative) economic effects. The fourth statement entails a different reasoning. It suggests a humanitarian paradigm: it stresses the problem that “innocent” seafarers are victims of kidnapping and torture. Arguably it is only one out of four statements which clearly makes the case that piracy is a public problem, exactly because it concerns the life of innocent individuals, which require protection.

That the campaign is primarily driven by an economic understanding of piracy becomes even more evident if we scrutinize the further text of the campaign. Throughout all of the material of the campaign we find reference to the economic category of “costs”. The suggestion is that piracy is a problem because of the costs it induces. Frequently, these costs are quantified in million or billion USDs. The campaign frames piracy to be an economic problem, and not asecurity, legal or development problem. On the immediate surface the campaign is about humans and humanitarian concerns. Yet upon closer scrutiny the campaign is throughout economic. Business vocabulary is used to frame piracy as a problem and the main concept is “costs”. This is even the case when the campaign speaks about seafarers; here the reference is to the “human costs”. The following two passages are paradigmatic examples for the reasoning of the campaign:

“Innocent seafarers on commercial cargo ships are being held to ransom for millions of dollars by armed gangs of Somali pirates. The cost of Somalian piracy is both human and economic. It affects seafarers and their families and YOU. Piracy costs the global economy $7-12bn a year because it is beginning to strangle key supply routes.”[iv]

“The human cost is just part of the story. Around 20 per cent of the world’s shipped goods pass through waters that are now infested with pirates. Few vessels are safe – from supertankers to small cargo ships. Research conducted by the Oceans Beyond Piracy Project estimates that costs of insurance due to Somali piracy at between US$460 million and US$3.2 billion.”

With the latter statement the campaigner’s almost openly admit that their true concern is not with the seafarers. Seafarers are primarily a concern because they are a human cost. Moreover these costs are “just part of the story“. How consequential the campaign presents piracy as a problem of business interests, becomes also visible, if we investigate what the “our” in the campaign refers to. In principle the use of a phrase such as “our seafarers” could be a strong argument for public support, since it is a public category, refers to larger commonalities and goes clearly beyond any private interests. The following passage from the campaign demonstrates which seafarers the campaigners actually have in mind, and what the “our’ refers to.

“We are one of the biggest ever maritime industry groupings, comprising thirty organisations that have joined together to raise awareness of the human and economic cost of piracy. […] we believe our innocent seafarers and the global economy have the right to protection.” [v]

The link established here is relatively straight forward. It is not the global community of the seafaring professionals, of all fishermen and seafarers worldwide that the campaign refers to. In this phrasing it is the employees of the shipping companies. Hence it is not a humanitarian, egalitarian understanding of “our seafarers” that the campaign foregrounds. “Our seafarers” refers to the employees of businesses. The seafarer is not projected as a human suffering from piracy, but as an employee which cannot be adequately protected by his employer and, in extension, this is problematic because it constitutes a cost.

To be fair, in the campaign there are also other types of arguments. This is indicated by the fourth core statement (oppose kidnap and torture of innocent seafarers), which is the only major statement in the campaign that does not have a reference to the economic understanding. There are also references to a security framing. Yet as the following passage highlights, even if the concept of threats is used, there is an immediate link to economic costs, rather than to other potential referent objects which could be presented as threatened by piracy.

“But the world’s politicians don’t seem to realise the severity of the crisis. World trade is under threat. Piracy costs the global economy $7-12bn a year.”[vi]

In summary, the campaign is directed at raising attention to piracy by arguing that it is an economic problem. There is no visible attempt to suggest that piracy also might be considered as a security problem to Western publics, as a problem of law enforcement and “good order at sea”, as a problem of underdevelopment and the situation in Somalia, or as a humanitarian problem given the agony it causes for seafarers, fishermen and maritime communities. All these framing of the problem are much clearer problems of the common, they are frames which suggest that piracy is in the public’s interest. In principle, also the case can be made that an economic problem is a public concern. Then however the campaigners will have to specify who is actually paying the costs they are referring to and they will have to make a further case, why additional costs induced by more resources for counter-piracy should be paid by the public and not by corporations.

Just a business lobby campaign?

Maybe there is nothing surprising in the finding that a campaign run by shipping companies foregrounds that the piracy problem is an economic problem, that it affects the business interests of the associated companies and that the main problem is that it increases the costs of their businesses. We might conclude from this analysis that it is just a case of badly designed lobbying work. The campaign fails to deliver the message that piracy is a problem of the common which requires public money being spent. Such a conclusion is however cynical at best. It suggests that piracy is a problem similar to, let’s say, the rise of a business tax. The problem induces costs for some fraction, and in consequence they lobby against it.

Yet, if the position is taken that piracy is actually a problem which is in the public concern’s, exactly because it is a  law enforcement, a development and a humanitarian problem, then the SOS campaign is a major opportunity missed to gather more support. A campaign that foregrounds the economic dimension and stresses that piracy is primarily a concern of the business interests of some, fails to convince the public that addressing piracy is in the general interest, and that it might even be a normative duty to protect the potential victims of piracy. Public support, and in consequence political support, is difficult to rally if a problem is framed as a private one, and that is certainly the case if issues of international politics are at stake. Why spent taxpayers money on an issue that is only of relevance to some companies, the majority of which do not even pay (a large sum of) taxes in the countries they are lobbying? Would anyone have supported an intervention in Bosnia, Kosovo, or Afghanistan if what was at stake were the business interests of some international corporation.

Perversely the SOS campaign might de facto undermine public support for counter-piracy. Funders and campaigners will have to seriously re-think the message they want to deliver to the public, if they think that more should be done by policymakers and if they are unwilling to pay the bill themselves.

[i] Collins, V.E., 2012. Dangerous seas: Moral panic and the Somali pirate. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 45(1), p.106-132.

[ii] Collins, Dangerous seas, 125.