Port and coastal states close to Somalia should “facilitate” the passage of armed guards and their weapons on merchant ships at risk of pirate attack, according to a circular agreed last week by the International Maritime Organization.
Sources close to discussions at the UN agency’s headquarters in London have seized on the wording as an unmistakeable implicit call not to obstruct the increasingly widespread use of vessel protection detachments in the region.
The IMO move comes just days after security professionals expressed frustration at an apparent unilateral decision by Egypt to ban weapons on merchant vessels transiting the Suez Canal, a step which they believe highlights the need for common rules on the question.
A meeting of the IMO’s Intersessional Maritime Security and Piracy Working Group of the Maritime Safety Committee from Tuesday to Wednesday last week agreed three circulars on the question, providing recommendations for port and coastal states, flag states, and owners, operators and masters respectively.
In a statement announcing their imminent publication, the IMO stressed that they were not intended to “endorse or institutionalise” the use of armed guards, and should not be seen as representing any fundamental change of IMO policy.
“It is for each flag state, individually, to decide whether or not privately contracted armed security personnel should be authorised for use on board ships flying their flag. If a flag state decides to permit this practice, it is up to that state to determine the conditions under which authorisation will be granted,” the statement said.
Nor should the use of vessel protection detachments be considered as an alternative to best management practices or other protective measures.
But security experts immediately pointed to parts of the document MSC1/Circ1408, which asks coastal states bordering the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea, Gulf of Aden and Red Sea to have relevant policies in place.
It goes on to state: “Such policies and procedures, whilst addressing the concerns of the state which has promulgated them, should facilitate the movement of the PCASP and of their firearms and security-related equipment and be made known to the shipping industry and to the PCASP service providers.”
Although couched in bureaucratic terms, and careful to take into account the security concerns of countries such as Egypt, which has recently undergone revolutionary upheavals, this form of words is seen as encouraging by private military companies.
Meanwhile, increasing attention is being paid to events on the other side of Africa, following the hijack of a Spanish-owned combination tanker Matteos 1 some 60 miles of the Benin port of Cotonou on Wednesday. The 2004-built, 45,557 dwt vessel has a multinational crew of 23 on board, including Spanish and Peruvian nationals.
An analysis produced by US maritime security consultancy C-Level said that while the extent of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is unlikely to rival that seen in the Gulf of Aden in the near future, there are good grounds to expect that it will increase.
The poor economic situation locally is expected to force more people to criminality, and the Somali example has clearly been noted.
While the Nigerian authorities have taken partially effective action against local pirates, this may simply have had the effect of shunting the problem into the waters of adjoining countries such as Benin.
But unlike the failed state seen in Somalia, all west African governments have sufficient law enforcement capability to prevent ships being parked offshore in their jurisdiction for extended periods.
“Off west Africa, negotiations are conducted and ransoms paid up in a matter of days, maybe a week or two at most, not months as is the case in Somalia,” argued C-Level.
“Ransoms not by accident remain very low; in the tens of thousands of dollars, not in the millions. The rewards therefore have been slim for west African pirates compared to Somali pirates.”
One possibility envisaged is that Gulf of Guinea pirates will go in for straightforward crew kidnap, and ignore the vessels on which the seafarers serve.