UK PM Seeks Law Change to Allow Armed Guards on British Vessels

October 31, 2011

UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced plans to amend British law to allow UK registered vessels to employ armed guards as security, when they are transiting dangerous waters – mainly those off the coast of Somalia.

Cameron’s initiative marks a growing trend, centered on London’s marine business, that the ongoing threat from pirates is costing ship owners billions of dollars, and that something has to be done.

Peter Dobbs, who heads Catlin’s Asset Protection service, delivered the same message in a recent interview with the IJ. “I think it’s no longer possible now to have a vessel, valued at a hundred million dollars, with cargo valued at two hundred million dollars, and to allow that vessel through some of the rougher waters of the world completely unprotected,” he said. As a result the maritime industry has to recognize “the world has moved on; the world has changed, and I think possibly in the future we’re going to have to look at forms of security that the maritime industry haven’t been used to in the past.”

According to the BBC “up to 200 vessels flying the red ensign – the British merchant navy flag – regularly sail close to Somalia. Officials estimate that about 100 of those would immediately apply for permission to have armed guards.”

According to international law, whether or not armed guards are allowed on a vessel is up to the “flag nation;” i.e. the country where ownership of the vessel is registered, hence the need to change British law to allow armed guards.

There has been a good deal of resistance to the practice, not least because it is thought that it would “raise the stakes,” and could encourage the pirates to take up heavier arms. “But more recently in the last three months the industry has been moving over to using armed guards on vessels,” said Dobbs. “There’s been a huge shift in 2011.” Previously most ships didn’t have armed guards, “but it’s now accepted by most of the ‘flag nations’ of the world that the way around piracy is to use armed guards on vessels.” So far no ship with guards aboard has been successfully captured.

How to assure that the people who act as armed guards are qualified to do so is another problem. However, it is being addressed. Dobbs explained that Catlin makes “sure that the guards that we’re allowing on vessels are fully licensed and fully trained, and that the right rules of force, rules of engagement and procedures are in place.” Catlin has prepared an 8 page questionnaire, which, Dobbs said, “asks the right questions.”

He also explained the role of the Security Association for the Maritime Industry (SAMI), a recently formed organization in reviewing the experience and qualifications of potential armed guards. “The better regulated armed guard companies are applying for membership.”

If Cameron’s plan to change the law is enacted, which in all likelihood it will be, there should be no problem of assuring enforcement of whatever regulations accompany it. As Dobbs explained in the interview, “London’s leading role is a natural one,” as “the whole piracy issue is uniquely British. The majority of the insurers involved are British, the majority of the law firms are British, the majority of the better guarding firms are British, and the majority of the ransom delivery firms are English. Piracy is very much an insurance issue that’s centered in London, as opposed to anywhere else in the world. London is where it’s at, and where piracy has been [a concern] for three hundred years from the age of privateers in the 1700’s.”

Sources: news reports and Peter Dobbs interview

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