Armed guards on commercial ships a risky business – expert


Despite their widespread use, there are significant risks for shipping operators and owners who embark armed Maritime Security companies for anti-piracy tasks, according to maritime security consultant Jason Marriott-Watson.

Speaking at the Maritime and Coastal Security Africa 2012 conference held in Cape Town last week, he said that despite the recent decline in piracy statistics, piracy off the Horn of Africa is not going away.

Marriott-Watson attributes much of the decline to the proliferation of embarked armed vessel protection teams and the 27-nation Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) applying immense pressure off the Somali coastline and thereby disrupting Pirate Action Groups (PAGs). A PAG typically comprises a mother ship and three to five skiffs which swarm the victim vessel.

However, Marriott-Watson attributes one of the prime causes of the reduction in pirate activity to the Kenyan military forces that recently seized the Somalia port city of Kismayo from al Qaeda-linked al-Shabab militants. He also believes that there is a significant under reporting of pirate attacks.

The largest risk associated with using Privately Contracted Armed Security Personnel (PCASP) and maritime security companies is the cost and complexity of operating legal weapons in accordance with codes of conduct. This particularly relates to the use of End User Certificates (EUC).

The use of legal weapons aboard commercial vessels incurs highs costs associated with obtaining the EUC, transportation and safe storage of the weapons. The PCASP must ensure that the weapons and associated EUC are controlled prior to embarkation and again prior to arriving in a foreign port. Clearances and import permits must be obtained, the weapons safeguarded and transported back to the home country.

A further complication is the ease of utilising JV (joint-venture) weapons, whereby weapons are shared amongst many users and PCASP.

One way to alleviate this logistical nightmare is to use floating armouries, something a large number of security providers rely on. In April this year, then South African Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, Lindiwe Sisulu, said that a number of European countries had approached South Africa with the request that South Africa assist the armed guards that provide anti-piracy protection aboard merchant ships. This included South Africa facilitating the establishment of an offshore floating armoury. Sisulu noted that South Africa was still grabbling with this issue, particularly the legality and ethics involved.

In terms of the International Maritime Organization’s regulations, commercial vessels are generally not allowed to have armed guards at sea. Consequently this “could draw the Company Security Officer, directors, and management into difficulties.”

He further warned of the dangers posed by inexperienced, ill-disciplined PCASP and maritime security, with the client having little or no control over who the company employs.

There are ways, however, to mitigate the risk associated with weapons liability. This includes the vessel owner/operator demanding to see that the licenses, EUC and liability cover are all in same company name, conducting due diligence on the PMSC prior to engagement and to conduct audits regularly to safeguard against commercial shortcuts.

Piracy is not going away and with the stretching of naval forces, Privately Contracted Armed Security Personnel will continue to be embarked on commercial vessels transiting areas of known pirate activity.
“The one statistic which is irrefutable,” Marriott-Watson says, “is that no ship that has been armed has been taken.”