Private security firms are storing their guns aboard floating armouries in international waters so ships that want armed guards for East Africa’s pirate-infested waters can cut costs and escape laws limiting the import and export of weapons.
Companies and legal experts say the operation of the armouries is a “legal grey area” because few, if any, governments have laws governing the practice. Some security companies have not informed the governments of the flag their ship is flying.
Some members of the private security sector are now urging governments and industry leaders to impose standards on the unchecked practice of storing weapons off-shore to equip anti-pirate forces off Somalia’s coast.
Storing guns on boats offshore took off as a business last year. Britain – where many of the operators are from – is investigating the legality of the practice.
Floating armouries have become a viable business in the wake of increased security practices by the maritime industry, which has struggled for years to combat attacks by Somali pirates.
Governments and industry leaders “need to urgently address standards for floating armouries and get flag state approval,” said Nick Davis of the Maritime Guard Group.
“Everything has got to be secured correctly, recorded, bonded, the correct locks, and so on. It’s not just a case of find a room, put some weapons in it and everybody chill out.”
Some floating armouries did not have proper storage for weapons, enough watchmen, or enough space for guards to sleep indoors, forcing them to sleep on deck, he said. In the absence of applicable laws, he said, “companies are just being economical with the truth.”
Mr Davis said his company operates two tugs as floating armouries.
“Ships have to use armed guards, yet none of the governments want to provide an ethical and accountable way of using firearms,” he said.
There are between 10 and 12 ships operating as floating armouries at any one time. About half a dozen are located in the Red Sea, three off the United Arab Emirates and a couple off the island of Madagascar, said Thomas Jakobsson of the security company Sea Marshals.
“Many companies are too small to be able to comply with regulations. It costs a lot of money,” he said. His company only used floating armouries licensed by the Djibouti government and flew the flag of landlocked Mongolia, he said. He believed most of the rest were not operating legally, he said.
The increase in the use of floating armouries comes amid a rise in the number of shoot-outs between suspected pirates and private security companies.
In February, two Italian marines shot and killed two Indian fishermen the Italians had mistaken for pirates. The investigation may set legal precedents for future shootings by ship guards.
A ship that uses a floating armoury will pick up weapons from it at the beginning of its travels through dangerous waters, then drop them off at another floating armoury at the end of the voyage.
Companies use floating armouries because it’s cheaper for clients than having to take their ship into port to pick up escorts and because there are restrictions on bringing weapons into the region around Somalia.
Several companies said Middle Eastern nations such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Yemen were particularly sensitive about foreigners bringing in weapons since the start of political uprisings in the Arab Spring.
Lawyer Alan Cole, head of the anti-piracy programme at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, also said taking arms into coastal nations can be a complex.
Regulations vary from country to country. In the island nation of the Seychelles, police come onboard and lock the armoury, he said. In Mauritius, weapons must be taken off a ship as soon as it is docked and stored by the police.
In international waters, the only country with jurisdiction over a ship is the state whose flag the ship is flying. Many fly flags from countries such as Liberia or Panama, where regulations are lax.
Even if companies are trying to comply with the law, legislation has not kept pace with the rapid growth of the maritime private security industry, said Adjoa Anyimadu, a piracy expert at British think tank Chatham House.
“There’s lots of calls – particularly from the shipping industry – for there to be more regulation,” she said. Britain was working on it, she said.
Since February, all British companies and citizens working in maritime security – or providing services to British ships – have to abide by a new regulation governing firearms.