Private Security on the High Seas

Author : Shishir Upadhyay

The Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) of the IMO which met for its 89th session from 11 to 20 May 11 has promulgated new guidelines for flag states, ship-owners, operators and Masters on the employment of Privately Contracted Armed Security Personnel or PCASP. This is a bold and timely decision and a major shift in the earlier stated policy of IMO which discouraged private armed security. The new IMO guidelines seek to regulate private security and call for suitable mechanisms to be drafted by the flag states and shipping companies to prevent mishaps. Separate sections on risk assessment, selection criteria, insurance cover, command and control, management and use of weapons and ammunition at all times and rules for the use of force as agreed between the ship owner, security provider and the Master have also been included in the guidelines. The new guidelines come with a caveat stating that employment of PCASP should not be considered as an alternative to the Best Management Practices or other protective security measures and that PSCAP should be employed only after a thorough risk assessment.

Since 2005, when Somali pirates first started making global headlines, the IMO had strictly discouraged employment of PCASP onboard ships. It was viewed that PCASP could lead to increased violence at sea. Until 2009, it appeared that the Somali piracy model was based on a peaceful extraction of ransom and the Somali pirates generally ensured that none of the crew members were harmed as long as the shipping company paid the ransom. A piracy incident of Sep 08 seemed to support this modus operandi; during the hijacking of the Ukrainian freighter Faina, off Somalia, the pirate leader admitted via phone to a New York Times reporter that the group wanted “just money.” Over the years, Somali piracy has emerged as a lucrative business model with low risk and high rewards. This has attracted several enterprising and adventurous Somalis, including retired former naval Captains and Admirals, who received their training in erstwhile USSR, to take up this profession. The average ransoms demanded has grown from $ 150,000 in 2005 to $ 5.4 million in 2010. Currently it is estimated that there are about 50 groups with a total of 2000 to 3000 pirates operating out of six different locations on the east coast of Somalia. Emboldened by their past successes the Somali pirates have now graduated to attacking ships - using captured regular ocean going vessels - at distances in excess of a thousand miles from the east African coast.

In recent months piratical attacks have been accompanied by a marked increase in violence. The pirate groups have become increasingly daring and frequently attack ships with rockets, close range firing with automatic weapons, etc to terrorise masters to stop ship. There are also reports of several crew members being tortured – resulting in the death of a few personnel - to extract maximum ransom. This year seven people have been killed (as on Apr 28) by the Somali pirates including four Americans onboard the SV Quest. In an unprecedented development in April, seven Indian crew members of the Asphalt Venture were held back even after the shipping company paid the ransom. The remaining crew were released with the ship. This action was in retaliation to the Indian Navy’s arrest of over 100 Somali pirates.

The increased audacity of the Somali pirates, leading to a spurt in the number of attacks and violence against the crew has been precipitated by two key factors. Firstly, lack of propensity on part of the shipping industry to invest in self defence measures. Currently, it is estimated that only one out of ten ships employs onboard security. This has made the merchant ships ‘sitting ducks’ in the vast ocean and easy prey even for small lightly armed pirate bands. Perhaps, this is a fallout of the global financial crisis of 2008 which resulted in the crash of the Baltic Freight Index by almost 90%. Freight earning dropped and consequently, most shipping companies - seeking to cut down their operating costs - were reluctant to invest in onboard security. The period between 2008 – 09 witnessed a sudden rise in piracy and there were several instances of ships were being hijacked with absolutely no efforts by the crew to even attempt to deter or evade the pirates.

The second key factor has been the inability of the navies to ensure security of the shipping lanes. The shipping industry was hopeful that the warships deployed on anti-piracy patrols off Somalia since 2005, would gradually succeed in curbing and localising piracy. However, contrary to expectations, piracy continued unabated despite intensive patrolling by warships. Between 2006 and 2009 the number of piratical attacks continued to increase rapidly; more than doubling with each passing year; from 22 in 2006 to 51 in 2007 to 111 in 2008 and 217 in 2009. Strangely, in 2009 while the number of warships on patrols had reached a record number of about 27 - 30 combatants; in2010 there were 219 incidents of piracy. Moreover, with every passing year the range of pirate attacks increased westwards extending from the east coast of Somali to reach close to the west coast of Indian by 2010!

One important factor responsible for the low success rate of naval patrols has been the lack of suitable legal mechanisms to prosecute the apprehended pirates. As a result (according to the Jack Lang report submitted to UNO) on an average nine out of every ten pirates arrested by the navies are released. This has been grossly counterproductive to naval efforts. The other challenge faced by the navies has been the sheer size of the area to be kept under surveillance. Currently, the area to be kept under surveillance spans over four million square miles. With about 20-24 ships on task this is practically impossible. According to a study by the UK Maritime Trade Office or UKMTO, it was estimated that a warship received about 10 minutes warning time to respond to a ship under attacks by pirates. This implies that only a warship with a helicopter within about 20 miles of the ship in distress could proceed to provide assistance. The task of maintaining continuous surveillance in the whole region would thus require over 300 ships!

Private security clearly emerges as a viable option to ‘fill in the gaps’ due to paucity of naval assets. Traditionally, private security has been employed successfully on land in a variety of roles. The employment of private security at sea, though not a new concept, was never widespread, since the high seas were considered desolate and therefore inherently secure. However, as the Somali pirates operating from regular ocean going mother vessels equipped with GPS, radio sets and automatic weapons have now demonstrated, the high seas are no longer safe but dangerous areas, akin to lonely stretches of the highways on land where armed robbers prowl.

The warships on anti-piracy patrols are limited by numbers and legal constraints and therefore unable to guarantee security in the entire region under threat. Frustrated at the inability of the navies in deterring pirates and the rising violence against crew members, shipping companies gradually resorted to hiring PCASP against the IMO and IMB policies which discouraged armed guards. Several countries including the USA had even issued official guidelines for their merchantmen to employ PSCAP. Statistically, it has been seen that the employment of PCASP has resulted in several pirate attacks being successfully thwarted. One notable incident is that of the Maersk Albama. This was the first American ship to be hijacked off Somalia since the 19th century. The ship was released after a successful special operation by USN marines which resulted in the killing of two Somali pirates. The Maersk Albama, singled out for reprisal by the Somali pirates, was subsequently targeted twice and both times the PCASP onboard the ship successfully repulsed the attacks.

The employment of PCASP is now a common practice for ships plying in the Middle East route; embarking / disembarking PCASP between Aden/ Colombo. This has led to a mushrooming of maritime security companies in the region providing employment to many ex-servicemen. However, herein lies a potential danger of an unregulated private security business model going out of hand. The September 2007 case of the US Private security company Blackwater - whose contractors killed 17 innocent Iraqi civilians in Baghdad while escorting a US State Department convoy - stands out as a grim reminder of private security operations going awry.

It is these concerns of mishaps by private security operators that the IMO guidelines seek to address. The guidelines draw attention to some important issues such as drafting of rules for use of force by PCASP, standard drills for graduated response against pirates, command and control organisation of PCASP onboard ships, etc which would need to be worked out in order to make the use of PCASP a success. While the IMO guidelines are a step in the right direction, in the present form, they fall short of formally institutionalising the employment of private armed security onboard ships. Perhaps, this may be the next logical step by IMO when the MSC meets in September this year to discuss the feedback from various countries. Finally, it is opined that in the long term, a strategy that involves a synergy of efforts by the navies and PCASP is the key to safety in the high seas.

Cdr Shishir Upadhyaya is a Research Fellow at NMF. This article had earlier appeared in SP Naval Forces, Newsletter Jun-Jul 2011.
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