UK clarifies rules for armed guards on ships

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The UK Department of Transport has published rules regulating the carriage of armed guards on British merchant ships sailing off the coast of Somalia, after a significant increase in the number of attacks against vessels in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden.

The new guidelines were confirmed yesterday and came after an October announcement that armed guards would be allowed on British ships.

Evidence shows that vessels with armed guards are less likely to be successfully attacked, and no vessel with armed guards has ever been hijacked, which is why the UK has been working in recent months to allow the lawful use of armed guards, but only in ‘exceptional circumstances’.

The guidelines stipulate that ship owners should include certain factors in a risk assessment motivate for selecting a private security company (PSC). Shipping companies wishing to use armed guards will also be required to submit a detailed counter-piracy plan to the UK Department for Transport in advance.

Shipping Minister Mike Penning said that, “The word ‘pirate’ can conjure up cartoonish images of eye patches, parrots and wooden legs, but the reality is much more serious. Modern pirates are dangerous, organised criminals who have shown they are not shy of using violence to achieve their goals. We have not taken this decision lightly. It is clear that we must offer those flying the Red Ensign every opportunity to ensure the safety of their crews and vessels.”
“By allowing the use of armed guards in a structured, legal framework we can move to a system where ship owners can provide an adequate deterrent against this scourge on the maritime industry.”

Under the changes published yesterday, any PSC employed to put armed guards onboard UK ships will require authorisation from the Home Office for the possession of prohibited firearms. The Home Office and police will also carry out checks into the PSC and its personnel before an authorisation is granted.

Armed guards will only be permitted when ships are transiting a defined High Risk Area, where “best management practices” are not deemed enough to protect the ship and where the use of armed guards is likely to reduce the risk to those onboard.

The Ministry of Transport said that in the last four years, 64 people have lost their lives as a consequence of Somali piracy. Currently 12 vessels and over 240 hostages are in the control of pirates off the Somali coast.

The United States also reversed their opposition to having armed guards on merchant ships. Late last month the Greek ministry of security said that Greek merchant ships will soon be able to carry armed guards to ward off pirates. Greece is one of only a few countries with major shipping fleets to currently ban armed guards on its vessels, alongside countries such as Japan and the Netherlands.

The International Chamber of Shipping, which represents over 80 percent of the world’s merchant fleet, said that arming guards was likely to be effective in deterring pirates for now, but was not a long-term solution. “Whilst we welcome it, it is a short-term palliative measure,” ICS secretary general Peter Hinchliffe told Reuters.

Somali pirates, operating from the shores of the lawless state in the Horn of Africa, have raked in millions of dollars a year in ransoms from scores of hijacked ships from around the world, including oil super tankers. The shipping industry recently called on the United Nations to create an armed military force to be deployed on vessels to counter the escalating menace from the armed seaborne gangs.



Hinchliffe said the ICS wanted to see more arrests of suspected pirates, military attacks on pirates’ Somali supply bases and a naval blockade 12 miles off the country’s coast. Better armed and increasingly violent pirate gangs are set to ramp up attacks in the coming weeks in the Indian Ocean as the monsoon ends.