IMO creates standards for armed guards at sea
Concerned about the potential for renegade actions at sea, the International Maritime Organization last week approved interim recommendations governing how ship owners, vessel operators and flag states should utilize or regulate the presence of armed guards on commercial vessels to protect against pirate hijackings.
The proliferation of attacks off the coast of Somalia and the expanded zone of pirate activity in the Indian Ocean during the past two years have prompted many shipping companies to hire private security contractors to deter pirates and defend their ships.
Many security teams train crews on how to respond to approaching pirates and implement non-lethal defensive measures, including evasive tactics, better watch keeping, installing physical barriers to boarding, and use of fire hoses.
There are 28 ships and 518 crewmembers held hostage by pirates in Somali waters, according to the International Maritime Bureau.
The IMO's Maritime Safety Committee said armed guards should not automatically be considered unless a vessel risk assessment determines that proven antipiracy security practices are not adequate.
The IMO standards cover areas such as criteria for selecting for-hire security firms, insurance coverage, command and control, oversight, disposition of weapons and ammunition on board vessels, and establishing rules of engagement.
The committee also recommended that flag states have policies in place spelling out whether private armed security contractors are authorized and, if so, under what conditions.
'A flag state should take into account the possible escalation of violence which could result from the use of firearms and carriage of armed personnel on board ships when deciding on its policy,' the IMO said in a statement.
The United Nations organization said it is not endorsing the use of armed guards and that its recommendations do not address all the legal issues, such as violations of coastal state laws or accidental shootings that might arise from allowing weapons on commercial vessels.
Maritime industry groups and experts say uniform rules of engagement are necessary to prevent trigger-happy security teams from overreacting to events and causing a deadly situation, either involving an innocent approach or suspected pirates that never fire or act in a threatening manner.
'Whenever you have an attack on a ship, even if you resolve it successfully, you have to ask yourself, have you done something that changes the game with regard to future attacks on other ships' and invites an escalation of violence that puts everybody at risk, said Michael G. Frodl, a lawyer who advises various insurance interests and conducts independent analysis of the Somali piracy issue.
The guidelines also spell out how vessel crews involved in an attack or released from captivity should help investigators collect evidence for pirate prosecution.
The Maritime Safety Committee adopted a resolution urging vessels to implement best management practices for security and shipmasters to obtain the latest situational information before sailing the high-risk piracy area, register with the Maritime Security Centre Horn of Africa and report incidents to the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations center in Dubai.
The IMO said it would publish final standards on security personnel in September. ' Eric Kulisch