SA ponders armed guards aboard merchant ships


South Africa has been asked to grapple with the question of how to deal with armed guards aboard civilian ships at sea.

In her keynote address at the opening of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium in Cape Town yesterday, Lindiwe Sisulu, Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, stated 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 off the east coast of Africa.
“We would like to be advised by yourselves on the ethics and viability of this,” Sisulu asked the Symposium.

Speaking to reporters after her address, Sisulu said that the world was turning to providing onboard security to protect their vessels against piracy. As a result, South Africa was required to grapple with this issue and give it the go-ahead.
“But,” Sisulu continued, “there is a need for us in the South African context that we may be required to allow replenishment for those people who provide security onboard the ships. Now I do know that there is an ethical matter, on whether or not (civilian) ships (can) carry armed people.”

Chief of the Navy, Vice Admiral Johannes Mudimu said that, at a Southern African Development Community (SADC) anti-piracy meeting in February, it was noted that the issue of armed guards aboard merchant ships was on the agenda of many navies and some countries were considering putting Marines onboard civilian ships.

In terms of International Maritime Organization regulations, Mudimu said that commercial vessels are not allowed to have armed guards at sea. But, with the increase in piracy and armed robbery at sea, armed guards are one of the options many countries are considering.

Mudimu also discussed setting up floating armouries around a dozen nautical miles offshore so that merchant vessels carrying weapons for security details could drop off and collect weapons without bringing them into port.
“This is an international trend,” Sisulu noted, “and this is the way most countries are opting to protect their merchant vessels, to have onboard security, but we have not yet taken that decision.”

Evidence shows that vessels with armed guards are less likely to be successfully attacked, and no vessel with armed guards has ever been hijacked. This is why a growing number of nations have been approving the use of armed guards aboard ships. In November last year the UK 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 United States also reversed their opposition to having armed guards on merchant ships.

While many are clamouring for armed protection aboard merchant vessels, Admiral Nirmal Verma, Chief of the Indian Navy, sounded a warning. He is concerned that armed guards may undertake some form of inadvertent action, resulting in harm to others, such as innocent fishermen.

Having expressed his reservations at an international naval conference last year, his fears were realised a few months later when a ship transiting Indian waters mistook an old fishing boat for a pirate skiff.

Verma explained that the armed guards “assessed it to be a pirate skiff and it was not the case, it was just a poor fishing vessel. They opened fire and in the process, two innocent lives were lost. I’m sure we will discuss these matters with respect to the carriage of armed guards, but we need to look at the practices we employ, we cannot have the situation were innocent fishermen get killed because of misidentification.”

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.

Sisulu clarified that South Africa has a maritime strategy that allows its waters to be protected, but they have to answer the growing number of requests from countries to have onboard security.
“This is what the symposium will be giving answers to. Because if we’re going that way, it will require a drastic restructuring of our own regulations and our own laws to accommodate that,” Sisulu concluded.