The questions of legality of armed guards on ships have become a grey and problematic area because of the hesitancy of many States to get involved.
All too often it seems that coastal States are not viewing the issue with any sense of priority or pragmatism, which leaves operators and personnel in a legal limbo, and without the protection they need.
Saudi Arabia has taken this message onboard, and has taken a lead allowing vessels in their waters to openly allow the carriage of weapons, “for self-defence against piracy”.
Such permission is subject to certain restrictions, according to a memo from the Saudi coastguard – however it is understood that the Saudi authorities have long turned a blind eye to the carriage of weapons. While the laissez faire attitude was a workable, local fix for those on the frontline – the lack of formal commitment was cause for concern for masters, owners, P&I Clubs and Flag States.
The development requires masters to provide a list of arms and ammunition prior to arrival in the country, and thereafter keep them in a bonded store, where they will be placed under seal by Saudi officials. The weapons may not be used in Saudi waters, and the seal may not be broken until the ship has departed.
MSR contributor and Ince & Co partner Stephen Askins, has pointed out the dearth of regional ports permitting the carriage of arms. He also reminded owners that just because the port or coastal State laws may allow the carriage of weapons, then these will not necessarily override Flag State requirements.
While it remains difficult for vessels to enter and depart ports with weapons onboard there have been various ways to circumvent restrictions. These range from leaving weapons on pilot boats outside territorial waters (which brings with it, its own security concerns), through to simply throwing any weapons over the ship’s side before entering a country.
Where compliance is difficult and replacement weapons cheap – then it seems inevitable that such “shortcuts” become the norm. Hopefully the more pragmatic Saudi answer will allow better control of weapons and those responsible parties supplying and using them.