Shipping & Logistics

Private maritime security firms spark concerns

The number of companies offering armed guards and other private security services for commercial shippers has gone up amid fears of pirate attacks. FILE PHOTO | NMG
The number of companies offering armed guards and other private security services for commercial shippers has gone up amid fears of pirate attacks. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

These days, when seafarers get together to toast over the falling piracy attacks in the Horn of Africa, they end up worrying about something that has guaranteed their safety too — the increased hiring of private security by ships.

The private security, which provides additional protection beyond the joint military patrols conducted by international navy forces, costs merchant ships an average of Sh2.3 million ($21,700) per month. And they are apparently paying off.

On Monday, International Maritime Bureau (IMB), a division of the International Chamber of Commerce that tracks crimes on the oceans, released data showing no incident of Somali piracy occurred in the third quarter of 2017.

But experts have raised the alarm on the lack of accountability and standardisation of security operations in the high seas, saying that this could end up causing harm rather than protecting vessels.

A new research even warns that the lack of uniform rules on how these different private security outfits should operate — and what weapons to use —could be dangerous.

“If the activities of these armed maritime security teams continue to be largely ungoverned, the actions of some unaccountable actors could increase incidents of violence at sea and possibly hinder efforts to pursue sustainable rule of law solutions to maritime criminality,” says Oceans Beyond Piracy (OBP), an American non-profit that tracks criminality in the high seas.

Over the last three months, OBP has published a series of papers assessing the implications of regulatory fragmentation in the management of private and public sector security teams that are guarding commercial vessels across the globe.

Private security, notes OBP, has particularly popular for vessels traversing the waters around the Horn of Africa. Since 2010, the non-profit notes, a number of private companies have proliferated the region, offering security services.

In fact, the use of these private outfits is part of recommended best practice. However, the nature of these private companies, domiciled in one state but operating across the region, provides a regulatory loophole.

Although there have been efforts to provide an oversight mechanism, standards continue to “differ substantially across the industry, and from country to country”.

Over 40 per cent of the companies are incorporated in the United Kingdom. On the other hand, the UK only accounted for five per cent of the guards employed by these companies. Regulating such a diverse sector becomes tricky.

“The wide range of corporate nationalities and overlapping concurrent jurisdiction creates difficulty in standardised monitoring and uniform application of legal compliance,” writes OBP. This leaves the door open for unscrupulous private companies to procure and use illegal firearms; to use untrained personnel; and even to shortchange clients and employees.

“In an increasingly competitive market, some companies have fallen into a race-to-the-bottom, offering lower prices to meet reduce client budgets; often at the sacrifice of legal compliance, training, or robust logistics,” writes OBP.

Proper training is crucial if the armed teams are to adequately respond to the dangers they may face while working on vessels. Mistakes can prove dangerous, not just for the vessel owners but also other seafarers, especially off the coast of Somalia.

“Vessels employing privately contracted armed security personnel should be cautious and not mistake fishermen for pirates in some heavy fishing areas,” writes the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), a division of the International Chamber of Commerce that tracks crimes on the oceans.

The latest IMB data shows there were no incidents of Somali piracy in the third quarter of 2017. But a longer-term look at the data shows that piracy is resurging in the region after seven incidents between January and June, including the hijacking of a Sri Lankan vessel, the first time that a commercial vessel has been seized in five years.

But it is not just private security that raises concerns. Some countries, such as the Netherlands, do not allow their ships to hire private security. These states often offer up their own military to protect vessels, at the cost of the ship owners.

While deployed to commercial vessels, these military outfits are not allowed to patrol the waters. Additionally, their presence on ships presents a conundrum for operational hierarchy since soldiers are typically trained to obey their military superiors, and not the master of a ship.

Some countries have also argued that the presence of foreign military on ships goes against the internationally-agreed upon standards for “innocent passage”— a concept in maritime law that allows a vessel to move through territorial waters.