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Italian ship firing: De-escalate row

Friday, 24 February 2012 | 00:00
The government is duty-bound to safeguard the interests of its citizens, especially when violence is caused to them by foreign entities, intentionally or otherwise. However, the processes through which a country protects its citizens are governed under established norms and the law. If these are taken recourse to with an open mind, well-intentioned negotiations can being relief to victims’ families in the normal course. Regrettably, in the case of the two unarmed Indian fishermen, mistaken for pirates and killed by two Italian Navy guards of a private merchant vessel of that country off the Kerala coast recently, common sense appears to have given way to meaningless nationalist posturing on both sides.
Rather than make a sober assessment of the situation in the wake of an incident, which appears not to have been calculated to target and kill Indian nationals, this country’s first reaction looked heavy-handed. Probably looking to his political constituency, defence minister A.K. Antony was first off the mark with repeated statements underlying the “very serious” nature of the episode and adopting a threatening tone in saying that the law would take its course, which is a superfluity. Perhaps this was only intended to convey that the government would take proactive steps to get justice for the victims’ families, but it gave the sense of sabre-rattling, and we were pitched to the edge of a diplomatic crisis with a friendly European power. To its credit, the Italian vessel surrendered the two marines who had fatally shot the fishermen.
Somali pirates have been active off Lakshadweep, close to the Indian mainland. It is therefore not unrealistic for a foreign merchant vessel to be extra careful in these parts. India too has been attacked by pirates and patrols these areas, and indeed has a good track record in dealing with this recently emerged threat to international shipping. However, for Indian fishing boats operating around our coastline, no rules of engagement have yet been evolved. It is undeniable that the Italians should have exerted greater care before firing fatal shots against what they mistook to be a pirate vessel. In such situations, a foreign flag carrier ought to be required under procedures to first contact the Indian authorities. Incorporation of this routine should be made obligatory as piracy has assumed a serious threat in recent times.
Both countries need to immediately take professional help to determine whether the tragedy occurred in Indian waters, and then swiftly ascertain jurisdiction through purposeful conversation, without hype. Rome has rushed its deputy foreign minister to New Delhi, and Italy’s foreign minister is also due to arrive soon. We need to de-escalate, look for an early practical solution, and get the case off the diplomatic crisis category.
Source: Asian Age
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