UK House of Commons Issues Piracy Report, Eyes Private Security Guards on Board, Local Prosecutions in East Africa (Part I)

The Foreign Affairs Committee of the UK House of Commons recently released an interesting report on piracy off the coast of Somalia.  For those who are not conversant with its work, here is some background.

The Report was originally commissioned in June 2011 in response to the growing concerns from piracy and armed robberies activities in recent years, particularly off the coast of Somalia, and on their effect on the UK’s economy and security:

“Piracy off the coast of Somalia has escalated over the last four years and is a major concern for the UK. The threat is not primarily to UK ships as very few have been captured. Rather, the threat is to the UK’s economy and security. Piracy affects the UK’s banking, insurance and shipping industries, and threatens the large volume of goods which are transported to the UK by sea.” (para. 20)

More particularly, the Committee examined the role of the Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO) in support of UK and international efforts to combat piracy, including the adequacy of international and domestic anti-piracy legislation, the support for anti-piracy projects on the ground in Somalia (including coordination at the international level, particularly with the United Nations), as well as UK naval involvement with NATO and EU anti-piracy operations. As part of this inquiry, the Committee received evidence from shipping and insurance industries, EUNAVFOR and the Ministry of Defence, in addition to experts on piracy and Somalia. Paul and Rachel Chandler, whose yacht was hijacked by Somali pirates in October 2009 and who were held captive for over a year also provided testimony.

The Report contains a set of wide ranging conclusions, the most important of which is a call for the UK, as a state “whose strengths and vulnerabilities are distinctly maritime”, to “play a leading role in the international response to piracy.” However, while its publication has been promptly noted by an authoritative legal source and welcomed by experts in the shipping, naval and security fields, the Report is yet to receive an in-depth legal analysis, at least with regard to some of its main recommendations. It is hoped that the UK Government response to the Report will help generate more discussion on the UK policies (as well as those of the international community) towards piracy in Somalia. As noted in the Report, the UK is also soon to host an high-profile international conference on piracy, to be held in February 2012.

The Committee’s final recommendations touch upon several relevant issues. These include the UK’s overall response to piracy and the need for the FCO to increase its support to victims and families as well as the continuation of the UK contribution to the naval task forces patrolling the Gulf of Aden. The Report also commended the positive efforts made by the shipping industry to ensure safety and exercise self-defence and discussed the appropriateness of the payment of ransoms to pirates to rescue hijacked boats and kidnapped seafarers as well as the need to improve the financial tracking of the monetary flows connected with piracy. In addition, the Report called for  more coordination in the international response and local solutions on the ground to tackle the social and economic root causes of piracy in Somalia. Finally, the Report addressed the deployment of armed security guards on board of vessels and local efforts to prosecute and enforce penalties against pirates. These two last points appear of particular momentum and interest, thus warranting a more focused comment.

Private Armed Security Guards (paras 26-43)

The use of private armed security guards (PASG) in post-war settings is not a novelty. Most recently, governments have increasingly resorted to outsource their security functions while private security companies have notoriously rushed to provide relief to military intervention forces in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. It is therefore not surprising that, also considering the high costs associated with episodes of piracy and armed robberies off the Somali coast, the sector of private armed security on board of shipping and cruise vessels is booming. A simple internet search reveals a plethora of security companies offering services to the maritime industry. One cannot but agree with the Report when it cautions a “‘gold rush’ of new private maritime security firms.” As discussed in a recent post, the unprecedented launch of a fleet of fully fledged private armed ships appears imminent. As suprising as this might sound, worthy of note is that private security contractor Blackwater Worldwide appears to have previously attempted to provide similar security services. See also a comprehensive jurisdictional analysis on the use of PASG here, particularly noting how the underlying legal issue is mainly one of the exercise, and limits, of self-defence.

The Report notes and supports the recent UK Government about-face by now permitting the deployment of PASG on board of UK-flagged vessels:

“the evidence in support of using private armed security guards is compelling and, within legal limits and according to guidance, shipowners should be allowed to protect their ships and crew by employing private armed security guards if they wish to do so.”

This recommendation certainly marks a shift in favor of the deterrent effect and towards empowering and calling for shipowners, as well as insurers, to bear some of the responsibilities and costs associated with providing security along the main shipping routes. However, regulation and accountability mechanisms have not kept pace with the surging growth of the private security sector. The Report addresses the various risks of using PASG on board (particularly using lethal force), and calls for further formal and practical guidelines to better regulate their operation. However, it falls short of emphasising any concrete direction on what force can be used and when. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has also issued interim guidelines on the use of private security guards as well as several aspects of their activities. The IMO previously clarified that these guidelines are not intended to institutionalise the use of armed and privately contracted security guards on ships and that they do not address all the legal issues that could be linked to their use. India and the U.S. have also issued guidances.

Calls for further and uniform clarifications have already been raised and, together with an assessment of the need for a permanent legislative framework that substitutes the current interim guidelines, should be on top of the agenda for the Government response to the report. In addition, with other States having opposed the use of such armed guards, the risk of fragmentation between flag, port and coastal states is of particular concern.  This leaves PASGs in the awkward position of being permitted by a flag-state to bear weapons on board and ship and tossing those weapons overboard before calling to port in a jurisdiction that may not permit armed personnel aboard commercial ships

In addition to the security of commercial ships, any holistic solution will encompass mechanisms for the prosecution, transfer and imprisonment of pirates. The solutions suggested by the Report in this regard will be discussed in a forthcoming separate posting.

One Response to UK House of Commons Issues Piracy Report, Eyes Private Security Guards on Board, Local Prosecutions in East Africa (Part I)

  1. As noted in the Report, the UK is also soon to host an high-profile international conference on piracy, to be held in February 2012.. The Report addresses the various risks of using PASG on board (particularly using lethal force), and calls for further formal and practical guidelines to better regulate their operation

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