Refloating the idea of armouries

Floating armouries operate in a grey area, where liability and the responsibility for establishing and enforcing compliance to a set of standards remain unclear. With the news that private maritime security companies (PMSCs) are once again starting to recruit ex-military personnel following a rise in west-African piracy (link to armed guards story), now is a good time to re-examine and resolve these long-standing issues.

During the peak of Somali piracy from 2008–10 many ‘café-based PMSCs’ sprang up, some legitimate and some not, run by individuals on laptops in coffee shops. Without proper regulation and a clear oversight, less than scrupulous PMSCs can continue to tout their business.

CSO Alliance has spoken out against the way floating armouries are free to operate, stating there is a “race to the bottom on price”, pointing to substandard teams that may not provide adequate protection, low standards, poor business ethics, complex paperwork, with errors and payment delays, illegally boarding weapons, less well resourced owners not carrying out due diligence on PMSCs, and the lack of accountability for café-based PMSCs that have been able to walk away if something went wrong as they had no reserves or insurance.

Proper regulation of standards, audits to check for compliance, and the creation of a list of reputable PMSCs for shipowners should be used to help combat many of these issues but the responsibility for this has been passed around like a hot potato. There were some valiant efforts to do so with organisations such as the Security Association for the Maritime Industry (SAMI), where PMSCs could become certified members through a security and compliance programme so owners could then choose from clearly reputable companies.

While this did raise security standards in some areas it ultimately lost traction, with owners turning away from the use of third parties. Phil Tinsley at BIMCO succinctly states the central problem, which is, “To regulate the whole process would take enormous amounts of money and time, which nobody seems to have.”

The required decisive action needed to create and monitor regulation appears in short supply. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) previously told SAS that while some delegations, particularly India, think guidance could provide a regulatory framework, others believe it should be covered by existing provisions like the International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) code, while some “think there is no compelling need and that it is beyond the IMO remit”. Unless anyone other than India raises the topic at the next MSC 99 in June, the issue is likely to go no further at the IMO.

However, without regulation, and with a potential rise in the use of PMSCs and floating armouries to tackle recent flare-ups in piracy hotspots, it is only a matter of time before we see another case like Seaman Guard Ohio, where 10 crew and 25 security personnel were held on charges including the carrying of unregistered weapons. There is, of course, a responsibility on governments to step into the debate, with particular emphasis on the United Kingdom, considering that most of the weapons on floating armouries are UK-registered.

While it appears a lost cause, there may be some hope in attempts to define floating armoury regulation by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Peter Cook, director of maritime security consultancy PCA Maritime, is acting as a consultant on a project for UNODC to establish a regulatory framework for floating armouries by taking existing regulation and putting it under one umbrella. Cook said, “We are examining all extant laws, regulations that apply to FAs [floating armouries], and the application of them”.

Only time will tell how successful this project is, but time is a luxury that seafarers and shipowners do not necessarily have when considering their security options in the face of the very real and present piracy threat.

Contact Tanya Blake or follow on twitter @Tanya_Blake

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