The special United Nations body, International Maritime Organization (IMO), recently launched its 2011 annual action plan "Piracy: Orchestrating the Response". UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon stated in his opening speech that piracy is still escalating and the situation especially off the coast of Somalia was, "completely unacceptable". Indeed, piracy incidents have not decreased in previous months, still about 30 ships and 700 seafarers are being held for ransom. To begin with, piracy attacks are traumatic experiences for the crews. In addition, a lot of money is involved: ransoms run into millions of US dollars, insurance premiums increase steadily and a majority of ship owners invest into costly security precautions.
Piracy is not a new phenomenon. In contrast to other regions such as the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea, where piracy attacks have declined, the coast of Somalia, the Gulf of Aden and the wider Indian Ocean are the new zones prone to piracy. This area is highly important for international maritime trade. The attacks on vessels and the alleged connection between pirate and terrorist groups prompted policy changes to the effect of immense military presence in this region. Besides independently deployed naval ships, three multinational forces are actively combating piracy off the East African coasts. In 2008 the European Union launched its first naval military operation EU NAVOR Somalia ("Atalanta"). In the following year a multinational, US-led Combined Task Force CTF- 151 as well as NATO's "Operation Ocean Shield" commenced. All three initiatives aim at disrupting piracy, by protecting and freeing vessels and building capacities with regional partners.
While World Food Program vessels and those ships passing through the "Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC)" protected by naval ships are not attacked any more, however, the facts speak for themselves as it seems that military deployments cannot stop the pirates. The problem has simply shifted. Looking at the alert map recently issued by NATO, it becomes clear that the piracy afflicted zone covers the wider Indian Ocean from India through to the Seychelles Islands. In addition, the pirates adapted their strategies and are making use of more sophisticated arms and "mother ships," which allow them to reorganize and restock for further attacks far off the coasts.
Ship owners of several countries still call on their states to take action, asking specifically for more military protection. Consequently, some states such as France and Italy have dispatched military personnel on domestic vessels. States acknowledge their responsibility to fight against piracy, but at the same time request ship owners to adopt security measures of their own. In this area, Spain broke new ground.
After numerous pirate attacks on Spanish vessels, the dramatic abduction of "Alakrana" and the refusal by the government to deploy marines on vessels, the Cabinet of Spain adopted a decree in October 2009 allowing Spanish-flagged vessels outside of Spanish territorial waters have armed private security personnel on board, equipped with long-range guns, instead of military personnel. The decree is the result of an agreement between the Ministry of Defense and the ship owners´ associations in order to protect boats, in particular fishing vessels, more effectively. After having received training in November 2009, 54 private security contractor (PSC) employees were sent to the Seychelles to take up their posts. The Spanish government participates in financing the contractors and bears about 30% of the overall costs, while the Basque government and the ship owners' associations together account for the rest.
This innovative division of responsibilities is understandable: on the one hand it is quite obvious that the Spanish navy cannot protect all the Spanish-flagged vessels; alternatively, the protection of the fishing fleet and the international maritime trade is Spain's national interest. Thus, it seems to be a practical compromise. However, I would advise caution in making use of PSCs - not because I brand them as "new mercenaries", but I am skeptical about hiring them for protecting fleets, as there are still unresolved problems, especially on the high seas.
Firstly, outsourcing security tasks challenge the state monopoly on the legitimate use of force, which is the basis of modern states, and prevents circumstances where self-help is standard, as was the case in the middle ages. A return to Hobbes' "homo homini lupus," state is not worth aspiring to as this would mean that anarchy is taking over and security would become a private good again.
Secondly, it should be questioned if the duties and responsibilities of PSC-employees are clear and definitive. Are contractors allowed to detain and arrest pirates? Are they allowed to chase them - at sea and ashore? What happens if pirates are killed by private security personnel? As it is well known from other PSCs' operations, e.g. in Iraq, monitoring their activities as well as revealing and prosecution of potential illegal behavior is a difficult undertaking. This may be even more difficult at high sea.
Thirdly, hiring PSCs to combat piracy may turn out to be counterproductive as it will probably lead to a "spiral of violence" and turn the high sea into another combat zone. The massive military presence in the Indian Ocean forced pirates adapt their strategies, making use of more developed and destructive weaponry. Having armed PSC personnel on board means that pirates expect more opposition when attacking. As both of the actors are armed, it can be assumed that the pirates will most likely respond with even more violent methods than before. It was previously reported that due to PSC presence pirates attack in bigger groups. Thus, when thinking about outsourcing maritime security the pros and cons have to be balanced carefully and the abovementioned considerations should be taken into account.
Dr. Annina Cristina Buergin holds a Ph.D in private security and military companies from the University of Basel and is a Visiting Researcher at Universidade da Coruña.
Read related articles from atlantic-community.org members:
- Sebastion Bruns: Into the Blue: Germany's Maritime Security Agenda
- Laurence McGivern: Term Paper - The EU as an International Actor: Operation Atalanta
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