Maritime Industry Rejects Calls to Arm Seafarers Against Pirates

Maritime Industry Rejects Calls to Arm Seafarers Against Pirates

The suggestion that mariners be equipped with weapons so they can defend their ships against attacks by pirates has been met with opposition by the maritime industry and is sure to be a topic of discussion at next week’s meeting of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in London.

The International Transport Workers Federation, of which MM&P is a member, signed on to a strongly worded statement distributed last week by maritime industry participants, including the international shipping organizations. “Pirates are now attacking ships on a daily basis with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, and are currently holding over 200 seafarers hostage,” they said. “The pirates are operating with impunity, and governments stand idly by. If civil aircraft were being hijacked on a daily basis, the response of governments would be very different.”

The group has asked repeatedly that coalition navies take measures to protect merchant ships. So far the response from official channels is that seafarers and ships should look for new ways to protect themselves. An article in “Fairplay” quoted U.S. Navy officer Bob Davidson as saying, “There’s got to be an element of self help…. If they don’t have weapons and fire back, the pirates will get on board.”

Davidson, a commanding officer of Coalition Task Force (CTF) 150, told “Fairplay” that the maritime industry would have to seek help elsewhere because CTF’s primary mission is to hunt for terrorists and drug dealers. Government officials in countries whose ships participate in the coalition have also cited legal limitations that they say prevent them from taking action.

Davidson also cited the costs implicit in policing a vast expanse of water, saying that for coalition forces to intervene, “vessels need to be within visual range –you need to be able to be seen and to fire warning shots or you need to have a helicopter or other air asset that can do the same thing.”

He said that if pirates have boarded a ship and taken hostages, the situation is even more complicated. “I don’t have a mandate to do a hostage rescue on a Panama-flagged vessel, owned by the Greeks, managed and operated by the Danes, crewed by Filipinos and carrying a cargo from Australia,” he was quoted as saying.

The response of the maritime industry has been quick in coming. According to the ITF’s John Bainbridge, arming mariners is “unacceptable” and would create chaos. Besides calling on governments to intervene, the ITF is suggesting that commercial ships be fitted with more surveillance equipment as well as electronic fences.

A spokesman for the International Maritime Bureau, which monitors global piracy, agreed. “The Somali coast is not the place for gun battles between merchant ships and pirates. Putting arms into the hands of untrained crews on merchant ships will make an already bad situation worse. And what kind of weapons could merchant ships carry to withstand rocket attacks?”

While he agreed that it is not possible for naval fleets to patrol all the waters off Somalia, he said “most of the attacks are occurring in specific areas and the task forces should be focusing on these, not trying to give 100 percent coverage of the area. The fact that naval vessels are in the area can act as a deterrent, just as helicopters being deployed to the scene of an attack is a good way to fend off pirates or terrorists.”

The ITF has said that the pirates’ work is being made easier by the relentless drive to cut manning levels on ships. The guidelines of the IMO and the International Shipping Federation (ISF) require strengthened night watches and 24-hour visual and security watches in pirate-prone areas, but there is not enough manpower on today’s merchant ships to meet the need. Local security guards at port or at anchor may be unreliable or in league with the criminals, all parties agree. At next week’s IMO meetings, the ITF will insist that there be higher manning in pirate-prone areas and that private security be used in places where it is dependable and available, including during transit through high-risk stretches of water.

Note: This article courtesy of the Masters, Mates & Pilots (MM&P).