All countries must back efforts to free Heroic Idun and its crew
If the ship were an airliner, this would be a full-blown hostage crisis. Captive seafarers do not receive 24/7 media attention, but at least deserve coordinated diplomatic efforts to secure their release
Keeping an innocent crew prisoner is just as much piracy when perpetrated by states instead of pirate gangs, and therefore cannot be an element in any legitimate fight against piracy
IMAGINE the reaction if 26 people on board a plane chartered to one of the world’s biggest airlines were detained by an authoritarian regime for three months, over what, at worst, boiled down to a series of genuine misunderstandings and regulatory infringements of the most trifling gravity.
The resultant hostage crisis would garner round-the-clock media coverage, as talk television hosts of the more stridently populist disposition demanded that special forces go in, all guns literally blazing.
The fate of very large crude carrier Heroic Idun (IMO: 9858058) has by contrast attracted little attention, largely as a result of the owners’ correct initial policy of keeping things quiet and seeking quiet resolution.
But now the matter has gone public, the plight of the ship and its crew should anger everybody in the industry, not to mention everybody committed to upholding international law and human rights.
Marshall Islands-flagged Heroic Idun — owned by Ray Car Carriers, operated by Norwegian manager OSM Ship Management and subchartered to oil major BP — had been due to load a part-cargo from Nigeria’s Akpo Terminal on August 8.
What happened next is hazy. But the VLCC appears to have mistakenly identified an unknown and unannounced Nigerian naval vessel approaching at night for a pirate ship.
Jitters are understandable in West Africa, which remains the world’s number one piracy hotspot, in part because local navies cannot guarantee adequate protection.
Naturally, the master followed the recommendation of war risk insurer DNK to get the ship 250 nautical miles offshore, and fled the area.
A few days later, Heroic Idun was stopped in international waters by the Equatoguinean Navy, at the request of their Nigerian counterpart.
From there, it was escorted to Malabo, where it has remained ever since, under the control of the local armed forces. The usual appeal against the court order is precluded, not least because no court order has been issued.
The crew, mainly Indian and Sri Lankan nationals, has been treated like criminals, even though no charges have been brought against them. Lawyers, embassy staff and owners’ and flag state representatives have been denied access.
Their mental and physical health has of course deteriorated; several have been hospitalised after contracting malaria and typhoid. Some of them have felt suicidal.
The owners on October 11 paid Equatorial Guinea’s government a fine of $2m, ostensibly to cover medical and military costs, for the heinous offence of not flying the correct courtesy flag in the country’s waters.
If anything, it is more likely that the ship was interdicted in the exclusive economic zone of São Tomé and Príncipe, and that the interdiction was completely in breach of innocent passage.
There was an understanding that the vessel and the crew would then be released. But a nation widely touted as among those with the worst human rights records on the planet reneged on the tacit bargain.
Meanwhile, Nigeria is pushing for Heroic Idun to be returned to it for further investigation.
The seafarers form part of the package, despite the lack of any extradition treaty between Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria. That almost certainly amounts to unlawful rendition, which is to say it would be illegal.
There may be an element of political grandstanding in Nigeria’s position, which comes ahead of presidential elections in which theft of natural resources is an important campaign issue.
But this is not the only time such incidents have occurred, as anyone who can remember then 2018-19 San Padre Pio case — also involving Nigeria — will attest.
Nobody denies Nigeria has every right to maintain naval patrols in its own waters and a natural economic self-interest in curtailing oil theft, not to mention a duty to the international community to fight piracy.
But no oil was loaded on Heroic Idun, as confirmed by subsequent inspection in Equatorial Guinea, when none was found. This cannot have been, then, an attempt at oil smuggling.
Seafarers are not bargaining chips or political playthings. Justice demands that they be freed and flown home at once. Any legitimate questions can be answered via Zoom.
The Marshall Islands first commenced arbitration under the UN Convention on Law of the Sea, then paused it fearing for the fate of the crew and has since served a renewed Note Verbale (basically a pre-action letter) on the Equatoguinean embassy in Washington.
The situation is delicate. But the flag’s threat to go to a tribunal should be enacted if necessary, with the legal action funded by the owner and ultimately by defence insurer Gard.
Meanwhile, India and Sri Lanka have rightly exercised their diplomatic leverage on behalf of their citizens. The embassies of other countries should also make their displeasure felt, in Malabo and Abuja alike.
Keeping an innocent crew prisoner is just as much piracy when perpetrated by states instead of pirate gangs, and therefore cannot form an element in any legitimate fight against piracy.
Both Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea have acted in an entirely reprehensible fashion. That should have consequences beyond mere tut-tutting.