The Somali pirate attacks in the waters of East Africa has left merchant ships no choice but to arm themselves to protect their crew and precious cargo. However, posting armed guards on turbulent waters carries it’s own worries. In spite of the frequent international maritime patrol, these waters remain a threat to merchant vessels. The attacks by Somali pirates remain bold and undeterred. Currently there is a huge demand for armed guards on ship.
The maritime policies in this region have not evolved with times to deal sufficiently to the threat posed by the pirates. Opinion is that countries must permit private security in its waters. However this may clash with the local weapons law of the country.
While there is agreement that the pirate attacks are a genuine threat, doubts are expressed of sending mercenaries and hired gunmen to the high seas. There is even fear of private militarisation of the seas. This is a highly controversial concern with no common ground between the concerned parties.
It is mandatory for ships carrying armed guards to get the green signal in the area they are registered before embarking on their journey. These are known as flag states. However, there has been an increase in the number of ships carrying on without authorisation from these flag states. The reasons for this is that many shipowners find the process tedious and do not want to loose windows at their next port of call. Another reason the on board armed guards are not reported is for fear of ignorance by international patrols, thinking that these ships are armed and able to look out of themselves. The statistics of the pirate attacks in the region give credence to this fear.
The UN maritime agency is opposed to armed guards on ships. Instead it encourages water cannons, dummy lookouts, electric fencing and razor wire to deter the pirates. However, it realises the current threat posed in the waters and is drawing up new plans as counter measure.
Several countries do allow a ship to be armed with a guards. However, South Africa is wary of such measures as it might promote weapon proliferation in Africa. The International Chamber of Shipping cautions that this is only a temporary relief measure but also agrees that it is necessary as the respective governments have shown no enthusiasm in patrolling their waters. Shipping companies state that it is better to arm themselves than completely avoid trading in the Indian Ocean which would dampen the world trade tremendously.
Fear is rife that these measures instead of providing security could make the pirates turn more violent and result in killings of the seafarers.