The UK’s House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) report – ‘Piracy off the Coast of Somalia’ – published this week has engendered favourable comment from various shipping industry bodies.
Basically, the report called for clear guidelines and rules to be established by the UK Government when dealing with pirate attacks on UK flag vessels.
The 72-page report set out the findings of the FAC enquiry into the efforts of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the UK Government to combat the increasing levels of piracy off Somalia.
As part of its enquiry, the FAC invited Ince & Co partner Stephen Askins, who has provided legal advice to the owners and underwriters of a number of vessels hijacked by pirates, to appear before the committee and provide evidence in connection with some of the legal issues that arise in dealing with the threat of piracy.
Among other things, Askins’ input related to the use of private armed security guards (PASGs) and the payment of ransoms.
Tackling the use PASGs, the report concluded that “the evidence in support of the use of armed guards is compelling” but that the “Government must provide clearer direction on what is permissible and what is not”.
The FAC recommended that, following the Government’s recent announcement that PASGs would be permitted on UK-flagged vessels, clear and unambiguous guidance on the use of armed force should be issued and that this should include provisions that the use of force should be proportionate, necessary and graduated.
It also concludes that a national regulatory structure should be introduced so as to provide a level of quality assurance and ensure that an appropriate approach is followed in all UK-flagged vessels.
In respect of the carriage and transfer of weapons by PASGs, the report recommended that agreement be reached with those coastal states through which weapons were likely to need to pass in order to support the use of PASGs.
As for the thorny question of ransoms, the report expressed its concern regarding the growth of the payment of ransoms and the escalating costs of piracy to the maritime industry but concludes that, given the commercial realities and the lack of viable alternatives, the Government should address this through the recovery of ransoms and prosecutions rather than making it more difficult for companies to secure the safe release of their crew.
In particular, the report concluded that the Government should not criminalise the payment of ransoms.
Askins said: “We welcome this wide-ranging report and it would be great to see the UK government taking a lead in this area. A number of the proposed initiatives and recommendations are aimed at protecting commercial vessels and importantly the crews who so often bear the brunt of the piracy attacks. That must be a good thing.”
Leading seafarers union, Nautilus International welcomed the UK Parliamentary report, which among other recommendations, called for clear and unambiguous guidelines for Masters on the use of armed force against pirates.
Nautilus also gave extensive evidence to the committee’s inquiry, and the report highlights the Union’s concerns over the threat to seafarers and their ships, and over the potentially adverse effects of outlawing ransom payments to pirates.
“Piracy continues to be a very real threat to the safety of shipping and the wellbeing of seafarers, and Nautilus welcomes this report’s acknowledgement of the appalling nature of the problem,” said general secretary Mark Dickinson.
“We fully support the conclusion that there is a significant gap between the government’s rhetoric and its action – and in particular the way in which defence spending cuts have had a negative impact on the (UK’s) Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s contribution to counter-piracy operations. As a nation highly dependent on maritime trade, the UK should be committing more, not fewer, naval assets to the high-risk areas.
“We are pleased the committee has noted our concerns about some of the implications of allowing armed guards on merchant ships – especially the absence of clear guidance to shipmasters on the legal use of force, liabilities arising from the use of weapons, and safeguards on the training and experience of private security teams. There is a very definite urgent need for detailed advice on these issues.
“We are also glad that the committee has accepted our concerns about the possibility of blocking ransom payments to pirates, and we hope that ministers accept the recommendation not to make it more difficult for companies to secure the safe release of their crew by criminalising the payment of ransoms,” he concluded.
The shipping industry’s 30-organisation body SOS SaveOurSeafarers (SOS) was one who supported the report saying that as the FAC observes, gathering evidence against pirates is challenging.
But SOS noted FAC’s comment that not all claims made by the government about the difficulty in securing evidence were wholly convincing. When pirates are observed in boats with guns, ladders and even hostages, SOS agreed with the FAC that “it beggars belief that they cannot be prosecuted”.
“SOS joins with the FAC in urging the government to engage with regional states to agree consistent and workable rules on standards of evidence required for a piracy prosecution”, the SOS said.
Although prosecution in local courts is the preferred option, the FAC’s assertion – that there is no legal reason preventing the UK from asserting jurisdiction over suspected pirates and trying pirates in UK national courts if no other state is willing to do so – could mean more pirate prosecutions if the government is prepared to play ball.
FAC observed that it is appropriate to take a cautious approach to military operations when hostages are involved, but adds that, if the use of violence against hostages continues to increase, this may change the balance of risk in favour of military intervention in the future.
The report also said that the risk to pirates of encountering serious consequences is still too low to outweigh the lucrative rewards, and simply returning suspected pirates to their boats or their land provides little long-term deterrence.
SOS said that it agreed with both FAC positions.
This article was posted by Neptune Maritime Security via tankeroperator.com. MaritimeSecurity.Asia in cooperation with www.neptunemaritimesecurity.com