“Shipping today is 93% of global trade volumes” – George Mangos

Eleanor Sa-Carneiro

Yemen’s Houthi rebels captured a cargo vessel tied to Israel in a crucial Red Sea shipping lane on Sunday, taking its 25 crew members hostage. Officials expressed concerns that escalating regional tensions from the Israel-Hamas conflict were now unfolding in a new maritime arena. With shipping representing “93% of the global trade volumes of the world”, Interunity shipping co-principal George Mangos told The Qonversation, “it’s an obvious target for political pressure. And in a sense, it’s a very soft target because the vessels are unarmed.”

The Iran-backed Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the seizure, citing the ship’s Israeli connection. They declared their intention to target vessels linked to or owned by Israelis in international waters until Israel’s campaign against Gaza’s Hamas ceases.

“The proximate victims are the crew. What they’re trying to do is to make a living for their families. They have no political affiliation”, laments Mangos. The Japanese operator of the ship, NYK Line, reported that the vessel was empty at the time of the hijacking. To George’s point, NYK stated that the crew comprises individuals from the Philippines, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, and Mexico.

Mangos recalled his experience with a similar situation in 2010, when one of their tankers was seized by Somali pirates for three months, “this was a particularly testing circumstance for everyone involved. But our experience paled in significance to that which the crew experienced on board at the hands of the pirates”.

Just as individuals have a nationality, so do vessels. The primary responsibility therefore for the security of any vessel lies with the flag state. While littoral states whose EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) you are transiting, George tells The Qonversation, are responsible for policing their waters, many vessels carry flags of convenience (FOCs), and “in international waters, the responsibility belongs to the flag state”, he explains.

In the broader sense, George suggests that the issue is about “who is this asset aligned with?” and that the Houthi targeted “what they perceived to be the assets of a particular nation as a form of pressure”.

As tensions between nations heighten in an increasingly polarised world, some battles are fought in the waters today, with terrorist attacks and hijacks occurring more frequently, with the maritime arena being one more battleground, below and above sea level. The question of the responsibility for security for these vessels remains a point of contention, particularly when vessels are transiting off the coast of a relatively poor nation compared to one with a navy. Who can or should police international waters?

“Ever since nations have begun, they form navies to protect trade lanes, and this holds equally from antiquity through to the Middle Ages”, explains Mangos, “and more latterly now to the global footprint that America has around the world and that China has been building around the world in order to protect its trade lanes”.

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