Best Defence Against Pirates Is Not Guns But Good Seamanship

It is worth highlighting the analysis of the last 60 attacks on shipping as reported by a leading maritime risk analysis company

SIR, There is little doubt that in recent months there has been an upward trend in the deployment of armed guards.

The mantra of the Marsec (maritime security) being that “no ship with armed guards has been hijacked”. That is right but it is worth highlighting the analysis of the last 60 attacks on shipping as reported by a leading maritime risk analysis company:

• Successful hijacks — 7%;

• Vessels saved by direct intervention of the navy — 10%;

• Vessels avoiding hijacking by good seamanship/drills — 61%;

• Vessels avoiding hijacking through use of armed guards — 28%.

There have been no successful hijackings since the beginning of May.

This is a vast improvement on the same period last year and perhaps the use of armed guards has had an effect, but it is reasonable to assume that most of those attacks would have been unsuccessful in any event. The majority of vessels continue to avoid being captured by the exercise of robust leadership and good seamanship.

It was a point made by Dipendre Rathmore, the young Indian cadet who himself experienced an eight-month hijacking, when he addressed the Intertanko Conference in Athens in the beginning of June. His moving talk and cogent argument received a standing ovation from 180 representatives of some of the biggest shipowners in the world. Most do not want arms on their ships.

Last week Lloyd’s List printed two articles on armed guards which were alarming (‘Stand up for Self Defence, John AC Cartner, Tuesday June 14, 2011) and alarmist (‘Arming Yourself Against the Exposure of Liability’, Chris Grieveson, Monday June 13, 2011).

Mr Cartner calls for an easing of regulations surrounding armed guards and wrongly, in my view, for state-backed immunity against prosecution where lethal force is used in “good faith” against a “putative pirate”. Most codes of criminal law allow for the use of lethal force in self defence. This should be enough and notwithstanding the emotional response from the “string them up” lobby we should not allow the Indian Ocean to be regulated other than by the rule of law.

There have already been cases where lethal force has been used by private security teams and “pirates” killed. Flag states are rarely told and no investigations are carried out. This call for less control comes at a time when accreditation and accountability of maritime security companies is being pushed up the industry’s agenda. Ships should be guarded by the very best there is.

Mr Grieveson, on the other hand, seeks to suggest that the use of armed guards gives rise to the spectre of owners being held criminally responsible for a guard’s actions where force is unlawfully used, presumably by way of a prosecution by the flag state.

He concludes that owners should seek to protect themselves, but offers no answers and no apparent understanding that the rules for the use of force must be cleared by the very same flag state prior to deployment of the armed security team.

If they are followed then it is difficult to see how a prosecution could be successful. If they are not, then it is equally difficult to see how the owner can be liable for the criminal acts of an armed guard on one of his owned (or more likely managed) ships.

The debate on the deployment and use of armed guards will and should continue. Some shipowners want to deploy armed guards and there are good Marsec companies employing men of very high quality. The majority of these are either UK nationals or UK based, but the laws on licensing, export of weapons and the use of lethal force make this an area where, as recent events have shown, those arrested are more likely to be the security teams themselves.

Stephen Askins
Partner, Ince & Co LLP


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