Private security companies guarding ships against Somali pirates are increasingly storing their weapons on so-called “floating armouries” in international waters, to avoid arms smuggling laws when they dock in ports.About 20 ships stocked with assault rifles and other small arms as well as ammunition, body armour and night vision goggles are scattered around the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, the EU naval force has confirmed.
The legal status of these armouries is unclear, and industry experts are concerned that the absence of regulation leaves the armouries vulnerable to attack from the pirates they are intended to guard against.
Peter Cook, of the Security Association for the Maritime Industry, said that “some armouries are effective and some are not” and that the poorly run ones could be at risk of looting.
The presence of armed guards on board ships has helped dramatically reduce hijacks by Somali pirates, but raised problems of the legality of the arms used. Carrying weapons into a country can be considered arms smuggling, using weapons without licence, breaching an arms embargo (especially in Somalia) and other offences. Some countries that permit ships to enter port with armed guards may not allow them to leave with their weapons.
Before floating armouries were introduced, security companies either went through the costly and complicated process of using a handful of officially approved onshore armouries or got round the problem altogether by buying guns illegally in Yemen and dumping them at sea when going in to dock at a port. Now they are able to drop weapons off at the armoury and collect them again when heading back out to sea.
By using armouries private security companies are able to avoid the bureaucracy of local ports, save on port costs and not waste time deviating to ports to collect guards.
Avant Garde Maritime Services (AGMS), a Sri Lankan company that works in partnership with the country’s government, is one of the major operators of floating armouries. The company’s chairman, Nissanka Senadhipathi, said there were “thousands of weapons” on his company’s ships. AGMS charges US$25 a day to store the weapons and ammunition, with 800 to 1,000 movements on and off the armouries each month.
Sri Lanka has established itself as a leader on the armouries, which are partly run by the country’s navy and have been approved by Security Association for the Maritime Industry.
But there have been criticisms of some private “cowboy” operators.
Nick Davis, of the British private military security company Maritime Guard Group, said that some floating armouries do not have proper storage for weapons, do not have enough watchmen and do not have enough space for their guards to sleep inside.
“The armouries run by Djibouti and Sri Lanka are very professional but some private operators are running death-traps”, he said. He said that poorly run armouries were more likely to be attacked by pirates – thereby adding to a problem they are supposed to be stopping – or to be used as a way of storing or smuggling illegal weapons. There is also concern that the weapons could be commnadeered by terrorist groupes operating in the region.
Despite the dangers, many governments are continuing to ignore the problem. British security companies are not authorised to use them, although the government is considering whether to officially approve of the use of Sri Lankan armouries. The FCO told The Guardian that they were “continuing discussions with interested parties, including the Sri Lankan authorities. We are determined to find a solution that allows British companies to compete for contracts in a fair and transparent manner that respects legitimate security considerations”.
Cook said that governments and the industry “can either embrace floating armouries, which will take us forward, or we can sit on the fence and allow circumstances to take control. If we put our heads in the sand it will push the operation of armouries underground and arms and ammunition will disappear all over the world”.
The International Maritime Bureau said that in the first nine months of 2012, there had been 70 pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia, compared with 199 for the corresponding period in 2011. Insurance premiums are lower when armed guards are onboard – largely because of the presence of armed guards. But experts fear that unless the legal position of the floating armouries is resolved, the momentum against piracy would be lost. Peter Cook believes that if armouries are not approved the seas would once again be left “wide open for the pirates” and that there would, therefore, be a marked “increase in piracy”.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
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