Arming ships may cause more harm than good
On Second thought' By Tom Timlen
When I last wrote on the topic of piracy for this column in January, the focus was on the lack of legislation needed to capture and prosecute the Somali pirates preying on merchant ships in the Gulf of Aden (GOA) and the Indian Ocean.
Although attacks have continued, some progress has been seen on the legal side with pirates facing trial in Kenya, the Netherlands, France and the United States, while Japan is working on national legislation to address acts of piracy.
There's even more good news. It appears few, if any, ships that follow industry best management practices aimed at reducing the risk of attacks have been subject to hijackings or boardings. Similarly, merchant ships joining the transit groups in the GOA have also reduced their vulnerabilities. All this while local leaders are pressuring some pirate groups to cease their illicit activities.
With such positive developments, it is somewhat surprising that we hear more calls for placing weapons or armed guards on board merchant ships navigating these waters. The shipping industry has not been keen to do so, nor has the International Maritime Organization condoned such action, and for many good reasons! Let's take them one at a time.
Concern No. 1: Placing weapons on merchant ships will contribute to an escalation of violence at sea. Pirates, clearly well-armed to begin with, will simply acquire and use heavier weapons. This would hardly contribute to the maintenance of safe and secure seas.
Looking at the Somali pirates, this concern appears to be well founded, as plastic explosives have recently been found on some Somali pirate mother ships.
Concern No. 2: Non-lethal counter piracy measures are working and comply with IMO guidance. Why change tactics now? In practice many ship owners have used special private security guards on board using non-lethal defense measures, and doing so has been effective. Even more importantly, such non-lethal measures do not violate the recommendations agreed and adopted at the IMO.
Concern No. 3: Weapons will attract pirates! Pirates find merchant ships to be attractive targets as they are well aware of what they can find once they are on board. Aside from the ransoms they receive, they also know there is cash in the ship's safe, and many other items elsewhere which they can quickly convert to cash, such as the personal property of the crew, and supplies such as paint and equipment that can quickly be sold.
Placing weapons on merchant ships would simply add another new attractive item to their list. Some pirates might see this as an opportunity to supplement their own arsenal, while others would surely see the potential profits from selling weapons stolen from ships.
Far from creating an effective deterrent, placing weapons on ships, no matter who is assigned to use them, could entice pirates to become even more aggressive.
Concern No. 4: Operational consequences. Merchant shipping is an international business. Many countries will not allow ships with weapons on board to enter their ports or waters. So the presence of weapons on board will impact the vessels' operations, seriously limiting their ability to meet the global supply chain's needs.
In effect, such ships will be punished for arming themselves in that their trading areas will shrink.
Concern No. 5: Legal liabilities. On the legal side, ships with armed guards on board will be navigating some treacherous waters:
' Where will the owners who agreed to place armed guards on board, or the masters of such ships, or the seafarers and the guards stand legally should lethal force be used against a suspected pirate?
' After pulling the trigger, will the armed guard and shipping company be hailed as heroes, or will they then enter an international legal entanglement costing far more than any pirate's ransom demand?
' Which states will condone or condemn such actions?
' What if the flag state, coastal state and port states all have differing views regarding the circumstances in which lethal force was used?
' What level of proof will the ship be required to provide to justify the use of lethal force?
' Will pirates returning fire at a merchant ship have the opportunity to claim that they were acting in self defense, as the ship fired first?
These questions are not frivolous. They illustrate the real concerns raised and felt by ship owners and the people employed on the ships.
Concern No. 6: Who are the guards? At present most merchant ships do not have armed guards on board, so if naval forces spot persons with weapons they can be fairly confident that an act of piracy is underway. Should the use of armed guards become customary, pirates would likely pose as security guards, confounding naval forces and marine police seeking to protect seafarers from harm. For this reason several countries ban the employment of armed guards on merchant ships navigating within their territorial waters.
Perhaps we should recall that attacks against ships navigating the Straits of Malacca and Singapore were recently quelled, not by placing armed guards on board merchant ships, but rather by enhancing law enforcement and naval patrols, including air surveillance.
Placing armed guards on ships will not rid the waters off Somalia of piracy. The restoration of law and order, at sea and on land, is the only cure for this disease. Piracy is but a symptom, which will not go away until the community of nations finds a way to restore law and order, and deny the pirates safe havens and free reign of the seas.
This will take the political will of many nations. Perhaps the one benefit gained from the pirates' endeavours is the global attention drawn to the hardships suffered in this broken country, that may lead to a concerted international effort to return law and order.