Armed guards back in spotlight after detention of anti-piracy ship in India
Two of the noted incidents surrounding armed ship guards involved India, which has seen frequent terrorist strikes, is a mere coincidence
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Irrespective of the outcome of the detention of the Sierra Leone-registered counter-piracy ship named Seaman Guard Ohio since 12 October, the incident puts the spotlight back on the unintended consequences of the decision by the global shipping industry to deploy armed security guards on board cargo ships to protect against attacks from Somali pirates.
The ship, owned by US-based maritime security firm AdvanFort International Inc., was intercepted off the coast of Tamil Nadu and later escorted to VO Chidambaranar port (earlier known as Tuticorin port) on the eastern seaboard and detained there by India’s Coast Guard for carrying some 35 assault rifles and around 5,680 rounds of ammunition in Indian waters without valid permits. The ship, whose 10 crew and 25 security guards are now under arrest, is also accused of buying diesel illegally. AdvanFort has denied both assertions.
Is the global shipping industry’s decision to hire armed security guards on ships to fight the menace of piracy turning out to be a much bigger problem that the problem itself?
For one, it has spawned the growth of several private maritime security companies who provide armed guards on ships transiting the high-risk area of the western Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden.
That two of the noted incidents surrounding armed ship guards involved India, which has seen frequent terrorist strikes, is a mere coincidence.
In February 2012, two Italian marines were detained in India for killing two unarmed Indian fisherman off the coast of the southern Indian state of Kerala. The marines, members of a military security team protecting the Italian cargo ship Enrica Lexie from Somalian pirates, mistook the fishermen for pirates and fired on the fishermen’s boat, killing them. India has handed over the case to its National Investigation Agency, which functions as the nation’s counter-terrorism law enforcement agency and a trial is underway.
The case of Seaman Guard Ohio is different from the one involving the Italian ship. The US-based owner of Seaman Guard Ohio says that the arms and ammunition on the ship were purchased legally and meant for use in counter-piracy operations to safeguard vessels in high-risk areas.
Besides, it has raised jurisdictional issues arguing that the ship was outside India’s territorial waters when it was intercepted by the Coast Guard to wriggle out of the tight spot it finds itself in. In fact, the firm claims that it strayed closer to Indian waters to refuel and escape a cyclone that hit India’s eastern coast around the time.
India’s deputy national security adviser Nehchal Sandhu said the investigation would be dropped if it was established that the ship was outside Indian waters. India’s territorial waters extend up to 12 nautical miles from the coast.
According to a Coast Guard official, the ship was 15 nautical miles off the coast when she was intercepted. He, however, explained that the 12 nautical mile-limit for India’s territorial waters will not apply in this case because the Gulf of Mannar—where the ship was intercepted—is an eco-sensitive zone with several small islands and would require a slightly different yardstick to measure the water limit. This forms the main legal basis to allegations against the ship.
Marine police in Tamil Nadu, where the vessel is detained, have filed first information reports (FIRs) and arrested 10 crew and 25 armed guards for illegally carrying arms and ammunition without authorization.
The crew has also been booked under India’s Essential Commodities Act for buying 1,500 litres of diesel illegally with the help of a local shipping agent. AdvanFort says it was itself “the victim” of possible local violations under the law. India’s shipping minister G.K. Vasan, who hails from Tamil Nadu, has said that the ship would not be allowed to leave until the investigations are over.
AdvanFort says that it had the requisite permits and licences and that the weapons were properly registered and licensed to the firm. But the Coast Guard says that the ship could not provide documents to support this claim by the US firm, which is why this episode looks a bit intriguing. If the firm had kept a comprehensive log of all the weapons and ammunition on board, which it claims, why was India’s Coast Guard not convinced?
The ship, in fact, is a so-called operator support vessel that provides accommodation platform for AdvanFort’s counter-piracy guards between transits on client commercial vessels transiting the high-risk area in and around the Indian Ocean. This kind of a floating armoury is a cause for concern and a recipe for disaster. The 26 November 2008 terror attack on Mumbai is fresh in memory and haunts Indians.
The Mumbai attacks killed 180 and injured over 300, besides causing large-scale destruction to the iconic Taj Mahal Hotel, owned by the Tata Group, and the Trident Hotel. The terrorist gang reached Mumbai by sea using a hijacked fishing trawler exposing India’s porous coastal surveillance mechanism. The spectre of the huge cache of weapons stashed on board such counter-piracy ships getting into wrong hands is frightening, to say the least.
The International Maritime Organization (IMO), a United Nations agency tasked with the safety and security of shipping, does not endorse the use of privately contracted armed security guards but has issued guidance in 2011 to private maritime security companies providing armed security guards on board ships in high-risk areas. The IMO, however, said that its guidance was not legally binding. Neither was the guidance a set of certifiable standards. Following IMO’s guidance, many maritime nations, including India (many Indian sailors have suffered at the hands of Somali pirates), have framed rules for deploying armed private security guards on board their ships and also the procedure to be followed by foreign ships with armed guards while visiting India.
It has to be acknowledged that the presence of onboard security guards has helped prevent ships from being hijacked and for attacks being unsuccessful. Yet, the two incidents should make the global shipping community sit up and take notice to check any misadventure involving armed ship guards.
P. Manoj looks at trends in the shipping industry.
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