Global Policy Forum

Private Security Companies Used in International Waters


Ship owners are increasingly using private military and security companies (PMSC’s) on merchant ships in response to growing levels of pirate violence off the coast of Somalia. The use of these companies to protect ships falls into an international “legal grey area” making regulation and monitoring of their actions difficult. Some commentators have suggested the PMSC’s resort to violence too readily, rather than pursuing the non-violent international guidelines to prevent pirate attacks. The German government is now relying on a vote next month at the International Maritime Organization to clarify the legal standing of the use of PMSCs in international waters.

By David Knight

August 26, 2011

The threat of piracy off the Horn of Africa is growing all the time -- but should German police officers and soldiers be used to protect merchant shipping?

Following moves to allow private security firms to protect German merchant shipping against piracy off the Horn of Africa, some state governments are demanding that police officers and soldiers be used to guard vessels. German commentators say the onus is on ship owners to keep their fleets safe.

The wave of piracy around the Horn of Africa, which has reached a peak in recent years, shows no sign of slowing down -- and the rest of the world seems almost powerless to stop it. With Somalia still without a functioning government, scores of young men continue to set out to sea to hijack ships passing along the vital trade route. The vessels and their crews are then held hostage for ransom, an increasingly lucrative activity.

A wide-ranging international naval mission has not succeeded in stopping the pirates, with 163 attacks reported in the region in the first half of 2011. Now some in Germany are demanding a more official level of protection for merchant ships. Up till now, the use of private security guards on board German ships has been a legal gray area. But following recent calls to change Germany's laws to allow the practice, some state governments are demanding German police officers and soldiers help protect merchant ships directly.

The government in the city-state of Hamburg, home to more shipping companies than anywhere else in Germany, has asked for operations of the German navy around Somalia to be ramped up and for police units to be deployed to help protect vulnerable vessels.

'A Global Solution for a Global Problem'

In the meantime, moves have been made to clarify the legal position of private security forces. It is estimated that a third of German ships operating off the east African coast already have such forces on board. "The traffic lights for deployment of (private) security forces have gone from red to amber, but are not green yet," Hans-Joachim Otto, the government's coordinator of maritime industry policy, said last week, stressing that an International Maritime Organization (IMO) vote next month is crucial to the final decision. "It's a global problem and should get a global solution."

German police trade unions, however, are hostile to what they consider a "privatization" of lethal force. "It's a function of the state alone," said Bernhard Witthaut, chairman of the German Police Union. He has called for Germany to set up a marine police unit manned by former German soldiers.

But German commentators Friday were angry that shipowners were seeking official state help, with some pointing out that many of their vessels sail under a flag of convenience and do not follow existing security procedures.

The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:

"Firstly, the owners are themselves legally obliged to ensure their ships are protected. Nothing is currently stopping them from bringing in private security guards to protect their vessels. A third of them are already doing this, even if they are not acknowledging it publicly. Secondly, from the outset many ship captains have not adhered to the -- non-violent -- international guidelines to prevent pirate attacks. To save money, fuel and time, they don't follow a zigzag course or travel at top speed, both of which make an attack more difficult; they would rather rely on the force of arms to deter pirates."

"And, thirdly, the bulk of their fleets -- or, more precisely, 3,089 out of 3,659 ships -- are sailing under a flag of convenience in order to save money -- more than €1.5 billion ($2.17 billion) every year. In now calling for protection from the state, the owners are showing a chutzpah that is worthy of Captain Jack Sparrow."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"The demand from German shipowners for protection against pirates around the Horn of Africa is all too understandable. An attack, perhaps even a kidnapping, is an ordeal for the crews, and ransom payments can even lead to financial ruin for the owners. Having an armed security team on board discourages attacks and minimizes the risk of becoming a victim of piracy. What is not understandable, however, is the desire, backed by some state governments in northern Germany, for the federal police -- in other words, the German state -- to take over this task and send uniformed officers to serve on board merchant ships."

"The German government needs to save money, including with the police and the army. Shipowners must understand this. Most of them sail under flags of convenience for cost reasons. They benefit from the regulations of other countries, but in an emergency they still call on the German authorities for help. This may improve the reputation of Germany's federal police, but it doesn't make the shipowners look good."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"The German government wants private security services, or at least only those that come with a special government approval, to protect German ships. It is also being reviewed whether private maritime security companies should be able to use heavy weaponry. But, by then at the latest, the door would be left open to dubious mercenaries."

"Of course, firms on shore are protecting private land with weapons. But the state is particularly concerned with the protection of trade routes and the merchant fleet. And is the private arming of ships really necessary for security reasons? Raids are usually launched against ships that do not comply with the existing safety provisions. Shipowners are responsible for that. For them, just as for the state, security has its price."


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