Sunday, October 3, 2010

Piracy watch: can security off the coast of Somalia be privatized?

Steve Leider writes:
Piracy season is resuming off the coast of Africa with the end of the monsoon season.  Several attacks have already been thwarted by ships newly equipped with safe rooms:

Over the weekend, pirates boarded the Greek-operated MV Lugela in the Indian Ocean but were frustrated to find the Ukrainian crew had locked itself in a safe room and disabled the engine.  Unable to hold the mariners' lives to ransom or steer the ship back to base, the pirates left the cargo.

Nick Davis, a piracy expert with the United Kingdom-based Merchant Maritime Warfare Centre, explained that such panic rooms were cheap and effective.  "You need a strong master, a well-stocked citadel, so you can sit there for up to five or seven days and wait for the cavalry," he said. "If the pirates have a dark ship and no crew, they'll just look for another."  But he stressed the importance of having functioning communications equipment in the citadel.

Earlier in September, pirates boarded a German-owned ship in the Gulf of Aden. Failing to find the crew, they even called the vessel's operator out of frustration, only to be told the ship was broken and the crew "on holiday".

Unfortunately only half of the ships active in the area are believed to have such a safe room.
A multi-national naval force is also currently patrolling the area, however it has yet to substantially reduce piracy.  A major UK insurer is suggesting the creation of a private navy to be placed under the command of existing international force to augment their activities:
A leading London insurer is pushing ahead with radical proposals to create a private fleet of about 20 patrol boats crewed by armed guards to bolster the international military presence off the Somali coast. They would act as escorts and fast-response vessels for shipping passing through the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean.   Jardine Lloyd Thompson Group (JLT), which insures 14 per cent of the world’s commercial shipping fleet, said the unprecedented “private navy” would work under the direct control of the military with clear rules of engagement valid under international law …
Sean Woollerson, a senior partner with JLT, told The Independent: “We are looking at setting up a private navy to escort vessels through the danger zones. We would have armed personnel with fast boats escorting ships and make it very clear to any Somali vessels in the vicinity that they are entering a protected area.
“At the moment there is a disconnect between the private security sector and the international naval force. We think we can help remedy that and place this force under the control of the multi-national force. We look after about 5,000 ships and have had 10 vessels taken in total, including a seizure where one crew member was shot and killed. Piracy is a serious problem, these are criminals basically extorting funds, so why not do something more proactive?”
The force, which would have set-up costs of around £10m, would be funded by insurers and shipping companies in return for a reduction on the anti-piracy insurance premiums, which average around £50,000 per voyage and can reach £300,000 for a super-tanker. The maritime insurance industry, much of it based in London, has borne the brunt of the financial cost of the piracy problem, paying out $300m (£191m) in ransoms and associated costs in the last two years alone.
Major obstacles remain before the private navy can set sail, such as the legal status of a private force and it relationship with the Nato-controlled naval fleet. But major shipping companies and key insurers are keen to proceed with the plan. Although private contractors already offer armed teams on board vessels, the idea of a sizeable industry-funded naval force is a major departure and evidence of the strength of feeling there that more needs to be done to counter piracy.

The proposed “private navy” would therefore act in a somewhat similar fashion to the private security contractors operating in Iraq.  It will be important to clarify whether the navy would qualify as a mercenary force.  While mercenaries have historically been an important part of warfare, modern international law discourages mercenaries by withholding from them the protections afforded other combatants.  Article 47, Protocol I of the Geneva Convention regulates mercenaries as follows:
1. A mercenary shall not have the right to be a combatant or a prisoner of war.
2. A mercenary is any person who:
(a) is specially recruited locally or abroad in order to fight in an armed conflict;
(b) does, in fact, take a direct part in the hostilities;
(c) is motivated to take part in the hostilities essentially by the desire for private gain and, in fact, is promised, by or on behalf of a Party to the conflict, material compensation substantially in excess of that promised or paid to combatants of similar ranks and functions in the armed forces of that Party;
(d) is neither a national of a Party to the conflict nor a resident of territory controlled by a Party to the conflict;
(e) is not a member of the armed forces of a Party to the conflict; and
(f) has not been sent by a State which is not a Party to the conflict on official duty as a member of its armed forces.


Anonymous said...

The use of the terms "panic room" and "citadel" are not used in the Maritime Security domain. "Safe Haven" or "Safe Room" are the accepted terms. I would suggest that the figure of 'half the vessels' transiting the area having such rooms is off the mark. The important measures to apply are readily available in the Best management Practice (Ver. 3), which should, in fact, be come the minimum measures to be adopted, globally.

OneEyedMan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
OneEyedMan said...

The safe room is somewhat like a vaccination. You don't need full implementation to generate herd immunity. Having a high enough implementation makes it unprofitable to pirate and so protects the ships without them.

Would the legal concern around the use of mercenaries really matter? Pirates aren't soldiers fighting in uniform for an organized state either...

TruePath said...

Unlike in Iraq there is no armed conflict in the waters near Somalia. Such a private navy would no more qualify as mercenaries than would police officers.

Now if they ended up defending ships against state sanctioned attacks then things would get interesting.