London, 31 October 2011 – Prime Minister David Cameron has announced that merchant vessels flying the red ensign will be allowed to carry armed guards for protection against acts of piracy.
Previous governments have been opposed to arming the merchant vessels, but with no sign of a respite in acts of piracy on the high seas and naval assets spread thin, the decision has been welcomed as a common sense measure that could save ship owners and the insurance market many millions of pounds.
The announcement comes following talks at the recently concluded Commonwealth Heads of State meeting in Australia. Many member states face the same escalating piracy issue in the waters of their shores. The home secretary will be given the power to license maritime armed guards under the new plan, but they can only be deployed while passing through dangerous waters, such as the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and the Somali Basin.
The piracy issue has been the subject of continued debate at Transport Security Expo in recent years. This event brings experts in fields of maritime, aviation and supply chain security together annually to debate the most pressing issues and help to identify solutions to them. When last held in September, debate in the joint International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) conference, emphasised the pressing need for armed self help as the first line of defence.
Government figures reveal that 49 of the world’s 53 pirate hijackings took place of the coast of Somalia last year. Up to 200 merchant vessels flying the red ensign regularly operate in these waters and officials believe that about 100 of these will immediately apply for permission to carry armed guards. It is admitted that many ships in the national register already carry armed personnel when necessary. The policy shift legalises this security measure.
Under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, every merchant vessel is subject to the jurisdiction of the country whose flag it carries. Legal experts warn that licensing merchant vessels to carry armed guards could still fall foul of laws in other countries. Egypt recently announced that armed guards would not be permitted on ships sailing through the Suez Canal for example.
Transport Security Expo has constantly monitored the piracy crisis and delegates have advocated this policy shift for several years.
In announcing the change, the Prime Minister pointed out that the piracy issue is holding the global trading system to ransom, demanding an international resolution.