International ship-owners have been given the green light to hire private armed shipboard guards in their fight against high-seas piracy.
The all-clear came from the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a United Nations agency overseeing shipping security, including prevention of marine pollution.
The IMO’s decision to officially sanction the use of private guards means the IMO no longer has faith in the world’s navies in combating high-seas piracy.
The move came in the face of a greatly increased incidence of piracy, especially off north-east Africa and in the Indian Ocean.
Ship-owners have become increasingly frustrated by increased hijackings, despite the presence of dozens of international warships.
The number of piracy incidents and high-seas robberies reported to the IMO has soared in recent years. In 2009, it was 406. The year 2010 saw an almost 21 per cent increase to 489.
During the first four months of this year alone, 214 piracy incidents have been reported. At this rate, the year 2011 could register something in the order of 850 piracy incidents.
The areas most affected (where five or more incidents were recorded in 2010) are north-east Africa and the Indian Ocean, followed by the Far East (in particular, the South China Sea), then West Africa, South America and the Caribbean.
Last year also saw two crew members killed, 30 reportedly injured or assaulted, and 1,027 people taken hostage or kidnapped.
An IMO spokesman said: “Fifty-seven vessels were reportedly hijacked, with one vessel reportedly still unaccounted for.…
“Interim guidance on the employment of privately contracted armed security personnel on board ships transiting the high-risk piracy area off the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden and the wider Indian Ocean was approved by IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC), which met at the organisation’s London headquarters for its 89th session from 11 to 20 May 2011.”
The group monitoring piracy attacks, Ecoterra International, says 50 ships are currently being held by Somalian pirates, with over 800 crew still being detained.
Piracy in the Indian Ocean has become increasingly more lucrative as well as more violent, despite an anti-piracy European Union naval force patrolling the area.
However, according to a BBC report, one in 10 ships plying waters off the Somalian coast already carries armed guards.
The IMO’s new policy is backed by the independent trade body for security companies operating at sea, the Security Association for the Maritime Industry (SAMI), that became operational last year.
Over recent months, there have been reports of increased aggression against hostages with many of them being beaten and roughed-up by their captors.
SAMI co-founder, Peter Cook, said: “The pirates have been killing, they have been torturing and doing fake executions and the level of violence is increasing. It is clear that something has got to be done in order for free trade to be able to continue, and it is for that reason that the IMO have decided to go down this very unusual route.”
Alan Cole, of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, said: “Once holding hostages, the pirates are under stress and become extremely nervous for fear of being interdicted by the navy. That to some extent is as a result of the piracy community changing.
“It has moved from being formerly disgruntled fishermen to those who come from more of a fighting background, and that has resulted in increased levels of violence.”
At the same time as private ship-owners have been allowed to hire armed security guards, various countries’ navies have finally managed to score a few successes against piracy.
In January, South Korean navy commandos rescued 21 crew members of a freighter, the Norwegian-owned and South Koean-operated chemical tanker, the MV Samho Jewelry, and killed several pirates during the action.
In April, Malaysian naval commandos stormed the MT Bunga Laurel, a chemical tanker, in the Gulf of Aden, freeing 23 Filipino crew.
There are now 750 Somalian pirates being interned and awaiting trial in 14 different countries, and it is feared that their compatriots are likely to be seeking revenge.
Last month, Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse, the only surviving pirate in the group that attacked the container ship, the MV Maersk Alabama, off Somalia in April 2009, was sentenced in the U.S. to more than 33 years in prison.
Sharp-shooters from the U.S. special forces unit, the Navy Seals, shot three other pirates dead as they were attempting to escape in a lifeboat with the ship’s American captain, Richard Phillips.
Last year, the U.S. military disclosed its latest anti-piracy weapon — unmanned drones to be based in the Seychelles. The drones can birds-eye view tens of thousands of square kilometres of sea daily and monitor the whereabouts of pirate boats.
But little has been heard of the drones in relation to piracy, and some analysts suspect that their main job is to search for potential Islamist targets in Somalia, where America is deeply concerned about the growing threat of terrorist groups, al-Qaeda and al-Shabab.
Joseph Poprzeczny is a Perth-based historian and journalist.