Pirates, Politics & Protection:
Like oil & water, they don’t mix.
For many businesses on the collective, global waterfront, it is going to be a challenging year for one reason or another. Hence, you can be forgiven for forgetting that it wasn’t too long ago that the most pressing matter on the plates of blue water shipping executives was protecting the mariners that get deep draft shipping from point A to point B from the scourge of so-called ‘pirates.’ The romance quickly went out of that word as vessels were boarded in remote places like the Gulf of Aden, West Africa and then, in obscure places in the Far East. The Maersk Alabama episode brought the problem into the glaring spotlight, followed by a reasonably well done Hollywood dramatization that used the incident as the springboard for a full length movie.
Before that, however, the problem spawned entire trade shows, a cottage industry of private security companies specifically focused on the maritime sector and a broader discussion of what to do, why and how to do it. Those discussions continue today. Large, multi-national coalitions and navies put in place several patchwork fixes that did some good, but at the end of the day, showed that trying to kill ants with a 50 pound sledge hammer was at best ineffective. It still is. It’s (in part) why the era of the 600-foot warship being the primary vehicle for maritime security is rapidly coming to an end.
By far, the most effective means with which to deal with the ‘piracy’ problem turned out to be embarking small teams of professional, well-trained armed guards onto merchant vessels. That solution has worked quite well, by all accounts. Governments like it because it takes the financial burden off the taxpayers and foists it onto the shipping companies (who, presumably, when possible, pass it along to their customers). The shipping companies like it because it works. Correct me if I am wrong, but I am not aware of any merchant vessel that has ever been taken while private security was on board. Unfortunately, the costs associated with these services are predictably and prohibitively expensive and ultimately they impact the world’s supply chain.
Leaving aside (for a moment) the root causes of piracy – off Somalia, most stakeholders would agree that it simply emanates from the ongoing lack of a functioning central government in that strife-filled region – the task of solving the end result of the problem merely masks the real issues that cause it, no matter where it happens. Nevertheless, when friends and neighbors outside the maritime cluster would ask me about the issue, their comments almost always went something like this: “Why don’t they just put guards on board and shoot these criminals when they attack?” And, I would answer patiently, “It isn’t that simple.” To which they always replied, “Well, it sounds simple to me.”
It isn’t that armed security is a bad idea; actually it’s a far better solution than putting the guns in the hands of the mariners themselves. Having sailed on a variety of merchant vessels, I don’t think I’d be comfortable with a good percentage of the folks I sailed with being given arms. And, trust me on this one; you don’t want me handling a loaded weapon. Sailing as an officer with the civilian-operated U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command in the 1980’s, I was aware that there was a gun locker somewhere on the vessel. I can’t remember ever seeing it opened and I was glad of it. Over time, the best reason NOT to arm the crews might have come from an experienced U.S. Master Mariner who told me, maybe tongue-in-cheek, “I want the cook putting out a meal, not playing Rambo on the stern.” But, I’m wandering off message here.
In the second week of January, the wire services reported that an Indian court had sentenced crew members of a U.S. vessel to prison terms of up to five years for illegal possession of arms in Indian waters. To say the verdict has inflamed regional and global politics would not overstate the situation. Reportedly, foreign nationals from Ukraine, Estonia and six former British armed services members were arrested in 2013 from the ‘Seaman Guard Ohio’ when they could not demonstrate that they had permission to carry weapons in India’s water. 35 crew members are said to be involved, some of whom spent nine months in prison. Out on bail, they cannot leave the country.
According to Reuters, “The ship was operated by a U.S. maritime security firm and the incident highlighted the loosely regulated practice of placing guards on ships for protection against pirate attacks.” “Loosely regulated” is one way to describe the practice, but in reality, the maritime security industry has arguably done a decent job in regulating themselves and ensuring that, in most cases, good standards and rules of engagement have been put into place. There are even voluntary international organizations that these firms can join and in turn be audited for compliance. All of that, however, doesn’t solve the myriad rules and regulations unique to dozens of countries where these guards might pass through on the way to their assignments, or where the vessels themselves transit in the course of seagoing commerce.
What is currently happening in India may well be an unfortunate political spat, grossly unfair for the mariners and security personnel caught in the middle, but it shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone. And just because the Somalia geopolitical situation continues to be at best unstable, doesn’t mean that other countries that do a better job with the rule of law shouldn’t enforce their own laws – whether or not we agree with them, or not. On the other hand, until the problems ashore that lead to piracy at sea are solved, professional armed security for merchant vessels might just our best bet.
Separately, some stakeholder reports now predict a spike in merchant vessel hijackings in high risk areas during the coming year. From where I sit, the practice of placing armed security on merchant vessels is still probably the best of many possible solutions to the challenge of ‘modern piracy.’ That doesn’t mean there aren’t some kinks to work out of the system. Beyond this and until a more international agreement on the rules for this method of protection can be standardized, then we are likely to see more of what just transpired in India. But that common ground may prove to be just as elusive as the solution to the root cause of piracy itself.
All of this is not to say that mistakes have not been made by armed security in the past. They have. That said; looking ahead, we may see more and more shipping companies reluctant to place security on board in certain areas. At the same time, more and more of the best security professionals may be leery of putting themselves in harm’s way only to be caught in the middle of a similar diplomatic row. And, that just might translate into more ship hijackings.
Like oil & water; Pirates, Politics and Protection simply don’t mix. We may have to change that reality. – MarPro.
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Joseph Keefe is the lead commentator of MaritimeProfessional.com. Additionally, he is Editor of both Maritime Professional and MarineNews print magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at Keefe@marinelink.com. MaritimeProfessional.com is the largest business networking site devoted to the marine industry. Each day thousands of industry professionals around the world log on to network, connect, and communicate.