Dutch flag vessels near government approval for use of private armed guards

Armed guards on security patrol on Coast Guard cutter Harry Clairborne. Credit: USCG

The Royal Dutch Shipowners’ Association (KVNR) said on 13 March that it was delighted after the Dutch lower house of parliament voted in favour of allowing Dutch flag vessels to use private sector armed guards to protect themselves from pirate attacks.

The bill, which won a majority of 89 in the 150-seat chamber, still has to be approved by the upper house but the KVNR told Fairplay sister title Safety at Sea (SAS) that it was optimistic that the law would be adopted after a 10-year battle to win parliamentary support for the measure.

It said it was unable to say yet when the bill might become law but that efforts were being made to have the bill put before the upper house before the summer recess.

Today’s vote is thought to have been made possible by the general election that took place in the Netherlands in March last year.

The Dutch Left, led by the Labour Party (PvdA), had long been the principal source of opposition to the use of private-sector armed guards, arguing that only the state should have the right to exercise force in the defence of merchant vessels under the Dutch flag.

Dutch owners have the right to call on the vessel protection department of the Royal Netherlands Navybut have long insisted that it was simply not able to provide protection for the vessels on the scale that was needed.

They argued that, as a result, they had been suffering from a serious competitive handicap in relation to their counterparts in other European countries, virtually all of whom have long been able to use armed guards aboard their ships.

They believe, too, that the Dutch flag has suffered as a result on the prohibition on the use of armed guards, with some owners switching to other flags to get around the ban and others discouraged from putting their vessels under Dutch flag because of it.

Another factor that is understood to have helped garner support for the bill is an amendment providing for an audio-visual recording of actions by armed guards in the event that a vessel comes under attack from pirates.

“We will just behave correctly and follow the rules,” said KVNR director Annet Koster. “Then there will be no problem for owners about being transparent.”

The KVNR said it was particularly grateful to the liberal-conservative VVD party of Prime Minister Mark Rutter and the Christian Democratic CDA party, which had introduced the current bill in response to an appeal from the shipping industry in 2016.

It added that the 13 March vote had been welcomed by the entire Dutch maritime cluster, which, largely, was behind the measure.

There are just over 1,000 vessels in the Dutch flag merchant fleet but more than double that number under Dutch control.

KVNR co-chair Karin Orsel told Fairplay earlier this year, “The key thing is that we want to protect our employees. It cannot be the case that you are not able to trade goods because you are trading in an area where you cannot guarantee the safety of your people. That is a huge disruption of your trade.”

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