Recently, the US naval vessel USNS fired at a rapidly approaching Emirati fishing vessel (crewed mostly by Indians). The Rappahannock is a US Naval Ship which means it is a vessel owned but not operated by the U.S. Navy, and used to resupply and refuel other naval vessels. Any military use of force by the Rappahannock would not be ordered by the master in charge of the ship, but rather by the Senior Naval Officer leading the security team, who was apparently under the impression that the fishing vessel could possibly be a pirate ship, or worse, a vehicle for a suicide attack like the one used to attack the USS Cole in Yemeni waters back in 2000. Tragically, one fisherman was killed, and 3 others wounded. The incident is eerily similar to the attack on another Indian fishing vessel by Italian military personnel a few years ago, where the Italians mistook the fisherman for pirates while guarding an oil freighter.
In both incidents, the fishermen claim that there was no warning given whatsoever. So what constitutes a warning? Lt. Greg Raelson, a spokesman for the Navy’s 5th Fleet in Bahrain, declined to say what warnings the Rappahannock’s crew issued before opening fire, though he stated they acted “in line with standard procedures.” (source: NY Daily News). According to the International Institute of Humanitarian Law Rules of Engagement Handbook, the protocol for responding to threatening behavior by another vessel (for which there is no concrete checklist; it is up to the discretion of the security personnel) includes:
1. Verbal warning (in English, presumably),
2. Visual signals (flares),
3. Noise signals (ship’s whistle),
4. Firing warning shots across the bow of the vessel.
It’s possible that the Indian crew didn’t recognize the Rappahannock as a military-affiliated vessel, and it’s also possible that they didn’t hear a whistle if they were under full power, or might not have recognized the sonic boom of a 50-caliber round (or may have said to themselves: “what was that?”) fired as a warning shot. It’s been reported that there was only one crew member on the deck of the Indian vessel at the time, who may have been preoccupied with trying to overtake the Rappahannock. There is no one-size-fits-all “right of way” in international waters; for a simple fishing vessel without a radio, it’s possible that the captain and crew were not even familiar with the UN Law of the Sea Convention, and perhaps did most of their fishing close to land, and not in international waters. All news accounts I have read place the fishing vessel about 50 yards away from the Rappahannock when they opened fire; probably too close under any circumstances.
It seems to me that what occurred was likely an unfortunate cross-cultural misunderstanding between two cultures with specific, diametrically opposed cultural norms: one that prioritizes rigorous protocols and rules (known as universalism), and one that prioritizes situational, contextually-specific decision-making (known as particularism)…. Most Indians have probably never heard of the USS Cole (though the Emiratis on board might have), and I think we can reasonably assume the fishermen weren’t intending on taking any action that would have led to them being fired upon. They may have taken similar actions in the past to overtake other larger vessels with or without military affiliation from any number of other countries (Indian, Emirati, Saudi, or Iranian), and perhaps not faced any kind of warning or forceful response. From the pictures I’ve found of the Rappahannock, it’s not clearly a military vessel to my untrained eye. It’s telling that as I read published reports on what happened, many American commenters show more of a tendency towards saying things like, “The US followed appropriate rules of engagement, and the fishermen didn’t. The mistake was theirs, and the US has nothing to apologize for.” Comments from Indians and Emiratis, however, tend to say things like: “The US killed innocent people. Regardless of any ‘rules of engagement’, they need to apologize for killing an innocent person. How would you feel if it was your family?” which align with what would be expected based on the general difference in universalism/particularism between the two cultures.
The US ambassador to India, Nancy Powell, conveyed her regret for the loss of life to Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai, according to the Indian foreign ministry. The US embassy in New Delhi released a statement conveying condolences to the families of the crew of the vessel as well… while at the same time the US government has stated that the security personnel on the Rappahannock followed proper procedures in warning the fishing vessel. It’s an unfortunate series of events, which hopefully doesn’t happen again, though with the Persian Gulf being a relatively narrow body of water, and its waters being frequented by fishing boats, freighters, and warships from various countries, I’m not sure I would bet on this being the last incident we hear of between US Naval vessels, and others in the Gulf.