Armed Security – a credible deterrent to Piracy

by Paul Gibbins, Director of Communications, Protection Vessels International

At the recent conference ‘Combating Piracy’ in Hamburg, the shipping industry heard the brutal truth that when it comes to piracy, ‘the US Navy is not going to come to the rescue’, furthermore it cannot prevent piracy and now endorses self-defence as the best deterrence against piracy. Never have Shipping Owners, Charterers, Masters and Crew felt so exposed to the threat of international maritime piracy; and now that they’re effectively on their own, self-help appears the only alternative.

The origin of the current spate of piracy in the Horn of Africa describes fishermen defending their economic shores against over fishing and toxic waste dumping. However this narrative evaporates when faced with a highly organised multi-million dollar criminal activity that is still on the increase. The facts are well known: an approximate 30 vessels containing nearly a thousand seamen being detained, released subject to a ransom payment of anything between $5m and $11m. In an environment where NATO and EUNAVFOR are taking the pirates to task through interdiction, detainment and extradition, they’re severely hamstrung by a severe absence of any effective rule of law ashore with which to prosecute and punish suspected pirates. Of 2200 active pirates, nine out of ten are released and only 946 pirates are ‘behind bars’ in 18 different countries. Most recently piracy has evolved into something even more insidious, with stories of torture and even death to those who resist attack. In January 2011, a UN Special Report on Piracy stated that: “The risk of reaching a point of no return is emerging, with the creation of a veritable mafia, piracy driven economy and the deep disintegration of Somali society, which is built on fragile local arrangements”.

Amongst of this narrative of despair, the shipping industry has been forced to consider alternatives to counter the threat of attack and ransom. The adoption of ‘Best Management Practice’ (BMP); a kind of minimum state of security on board each vessel is the beginning of this process: razor wire adorns the edges of the freeboard, water hoses are positioned to ward off would be attackers, likely access and penetration points into the vessel are locked down and tactics such as changing course and speed and the increased use of ‘citadels’ – a maritime panic room – all contribute towards reducing the vulnerability. However faced with a threat that is also upping its game – multiple high powered skiffs with upwards of a 20 man boarding party and the support of mother ships operating over the horizon- BMP are fast becoming anachronistic as the pirates overcome these obstacles.

Faced with increasing insurance premiums and crews simply refusing to go to sea, more and more shipping owners have concluded that the only credible alternative to safeguard a vessel, its crew and its contents is through the deterrent provided by private armed maritime security. And yet, a year ago, armed security in the industry was met with distaste. Arguably the threat simply did not warrant the presence of such force, indeed it was deemed to be the single factor towards supporting an escalation of violence and thereby something to be avoided. Why have firearms on board to deter would be attackers armed with nothing more than clubs and machetes? Indeed, according Denise Russell, in her recent book – ‘Who rules the waves? – ‘a major impediment to ships carrying arms is the Law of the Sea. Ships normally have the right of innocent passage through the territorial waters of a coastal state. This is premised upon the belief that that merely passing through these waters poses no threat to the coastal state or others using those waters. If ships carry arms then this belief might be questioned and much tighter legal restrictions concerning the right of passage could be placed upon shipping’. It’s suggested that today the environment has changed considerably since the UN defined the law of the sea convention in 1982. So much so, that the current situation is now recognised by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), who has just issued interim guidance on the employment of privately contracted armed security personnel on board ships transiting the high-risk piracy area off the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden and the wider Indian Ocean.

Piracy is still not high on the political agenda of the international community. Both EUNAVFOR and NATO openly admit their inadequacy of resources and as the number of successful piracy attacks increases, ship owners have little choice but to accept armed security as the only credible deterrent to the issue. With the recent launch of the Security Association for the Maritime Industry (SAMI), ship owners can at least begin to safeguard themselves against rogue ‘guns for hire’ through a clear set of minimum standards that a maritime security company should operate by.

With the IMO’s recent statement on the use of armed security, it is logical to expect that many other companies will enter the market. Many will undoubtedly confuse ship owners with cut price deals that wholly underestimate the enormity of delivering such a service in a highly challenging environment. However, until a realistic political solution to piracy is begun, appropriately registered privately contracted armed security personnel are the last option for the safe passage and continuance of international trade.


About the author:

Paul Gibbins is the Director of Communications for Protection Vessels International Limited.  An ex Royal Marine, he accumulated over 22 years’ service and towards the end of his career he worked as a Press Officer, project managing UK and International Media visits to high risk environments such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo. He worked in close liaison with other Governmental Departments up to Ministerial level in utilising strategic communications and media development skills to the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. On departure from the MOD, he moved into Public Relations, specifically in conflict and post conflict countries, responsible for Media Training, Development and Strategic Communications projects working for the UN and the US & UK Governments in Sierra Leone, Lebanon, Iraq and Somalia.


*A version of this article was first published in the June/July 2011 edition of Cargo Security International

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