Armed Conflict

There has been much talk, of an impending piracy “perfect storm” off Somalia. To quote one observer, we can expect “more and badder bad guys’ and less “good guys”, which all sounds pretty bleak to say the least.

When the SW monsoon lifts there is likely to be only a minimal naval/military presence left patrolling the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean and the pirates are likely to burst out of the blocks with new weapons and boats, and just as greedy as ever.

For the shipping companies who aren’t yet fitted with anti-piracy systems, it seems ever more likely they will turn to armed guards. Not out of a passion for men with guns, but out of desperation.

However there is still much confusion about the potential legal ramifications of using arms – with P&I Clubs joining the debate and outspoken legal commentators joining the fray.

According to John AC Cartner writing in Lloyd’s List, the appointment of armed guards is fraught with, “potential criminal liabilities for guards, master and owners”.

A number of  lawyers have been sending rather mixed messages on this topic, and while their legal interpretations may well be accurate, it seems increasingly difficult to actually clarify just what a master should do and when. It seems a case of owners, masters and guards being “damned if they do and damned if they don’t”.

If they do place armed guards onboard, and if they do fire and if they do injure a pirate, then there are fears that they could be violating flag state laws.  Whereas if they don’t take the necessary steps to safeguard themselves and the ship gets hijacked, then they have also failed in their duty to protect the crew and vessel.

Mind you, perhaps we should remember the words of Dirty Harry, “shooting is fine, so long as the right people get shot”. Sadly it seems a little more complicated than that.

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