IMO worried about arming ships to fight piracy


Proposals to arm sailors on commercial shipping vessels to battle pirates could lead to an “arms race” on the high seas, a senior maritime official says.

Some shipping companies want their crews to have arms or use mercenaries to deal with Somali pirates, who have mounted 81 attacks between January 1 and April 20, according to data from the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), compared with 115 for all of 2008.

But Nicolaos Charalambous, deputy director of IMO, a United Nations body, told Reuters in an interview that arming sailors is not the answer.

“Do we want to turn the whole area into a naval battle?” he said while attending a conference in the Malaysian capital on piracy.

“And if you are having firearms on board, where do you draw the line? Somali pirates have the capability of getting more heavy caliber weapons.”

Using satellite trackers, pirates from lawless Somalia have struck merchant ships in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean, capturing dozens of vessels and hundreds of hostages and making off with millions of dollars in ransoms, Reuters reported.

US Navy commandos shot and killed three Somali gunmen last month to free Richard Phillips, the US ship captain held hostage who later told Congress in May that arming some members on commercial ship crews could reduce pirate attacks.

Charalambous said the pirate attacks could only be contained by navies operating in the Gulf of Aden and the only long term solution was an end to Somalia‘s 18 years of anarchy that has displaced millions, killed thousands and defied 15 attempts to establish central rule.

“When you have a proper legal framework and show willingness to take action on land, then necessity of the coast guard comes into the picture,” he said in response to a call from a Somali official at the conference to help set up a national coast guard.

The attacks have disrupted shipping, delayed food aid to restive east Africa, increased insurance costs and persuaded some firms to send cargoes around South Africa instead of through the Suez Canal, a key route for oil.

“UN data has shown that if this attack rate is sustained, it will easily surpass the record number of 115 attacks in 2008 and could climb to 200 attacks in 2009,” Charalambous said.

Somali pirates patrol 2.5 million square miles (6.5 million sq km) of ocean, about four times the size of Texas, and can very easily elude capture from ships from the United States, Europe, China, Japan and others flocking to region to protect sea routes.

Unlike the pirates in some parts of West Africa’s coast especially Nigeria, the Somalis tend to treat their hostages well in hopes of getting higher ransoms, the IMO said.

That is not the case everywhere and the IMO is concerned by a rising tide of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa.

“On the Somali side, all information shows hijackers tried to keep crews well.

Unfortunately in Gulf of Guinea, more lives were lost … it’s more political,” Charalambous said referring to piracy by armed gangs from Nigeria‘s oil-rich Niger Delta.

“But that might change for the Somali pirates if commercial ships are armed and someone gets killed in the gun battles,” he said.