Dec 162008

Not unsurprisingly, US Defence Secretary John M. Gates told last week’s international gathering in Bahrain that ship owners should do more to protect their vessels against pirates including putting armed guards aboard.. Those who wonder why the industry has generally been reluctant to put guns on ships need look further than Salt Lake City, Utah, where five employees of Blackwater, a contractor for the US Stae Department and currently offering armed protection for ships along the Somali coast and the Gulf of Aden, are to go on trial for the alleged killing of 17 civilians in Baghdad in 2007 while a 6th has already pleaded guilty to killing at least one civilian and will be testifying for the prosecution.

In the past years the number of actual and attempted attacks on ships has increased by 300 per cent with, reports the BBC, 17 ships and three hundred seafarers currently being held hostage. While a number of naval forces are in the area their rules of engagement limit what they can actually do.

US naval officers agree with recent reports by Rand and Chatham House that the pirates are not terrorists but criminals which, as MAC has previously pointed out, is good news for the pirates and bad for everyone else. Without the attachment of the ‘terrorist’ label the resources needed, for intelligence gathering and the provision of military muscle to take on the pirate safe havens on land, will not be made available.

Unarmed guards using non-lethal technology have been successful in deterring attacks, recent events demonstrate that neither the guards nor current technology can prevail against a determined attack

Many countries are rather fussy about who runs around their territory with high-powered weapons and the laws of those states apply to vessels under their flags. Even the US is uncomfortable with foreign ships entering its ports with weapons aboard.

Putting armed guards on ships presents shipowners, and insurers, with a legalistic quagmire. Blackwater’s employees in Iraq had legal immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law, now revoked, while US law is not clear on whether Blackwater’s men can be tried in the US for crimes committed overseas. In the case of a Blackwater-style incident at sea the legal issues are even more complex.

That such an incident is a real possibility was shown by the Indian navy’s sinking of a Thai fishing boat which had been seized by pirates and was being used to attack ships, with the fishing boat’s crew still aboard. Some 18 of the fishing boat’s crew died and only one survived. While the Indian Navy, like all naval military forces, is protected by international treaty a private contractor and its armed employees are not.

Not only could the shipowner who hired the company to protect his vessel find himself hauled to throw dice in a courtroom, so, too, could the ship’s master. He or she may find himself on trial for murder since he had command of the vessel and the contractors were nominally under that command. In some jurisdictions simply being a master in charge o a vessel involved in an incident makes imprisonment and heavy fines a foregone conclusion, ask the master and chief officer of Hebei Spirit.

A leading maritime lawyer questioned by the BBC said “If insurers could prove that an armed clash with pirates constituted “unlawful use of weapons at sea” then the insurance company would be unlikely to pay up for any damage or loss of the ship and its cargo. No shipping company would want that.”

Currently, few navies are willing to arrest pirates at all due to legal issues and the lack of a legal forum in which to try them, so it is, perhaps, a little hypocritical of John Gates and the US navy to suggest ship owners take a risk that even they, themselves, are reluctant to face.


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