Pirates and floating armouries

22 November 2015 07:25 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


An insight into piracy, private maritime security companies (PMSCS) and floating armouries


There is a severe debate going on at present over the legality of floating armouries (FAs) in the western Indian Ocean operated by a private company which is linked to the Defence Ministry of the Government of Sri Lanka. Two Ministers  and  a retired Army Commander  were embroiled in accusations and counter accusations against each other over this highly controversial topic earlier and  for the past week especially after the President had decided to hand over all the weapons and operations of the  FAs of this company  to the Navy.

It is also unfortunate that the local media also have taken sides on this issue and are giving wide publicity to the general public on a subject that is highly controversial.

As a further development, it has been reported that the Navy would hire weapons to local or foreign PMSCs that would be selected by calling for competitive offers from the Navy’s land based armoury at Galle. (Sunday Times November 15, 2015 –Political Column)

In the above backdrop, I would like to educate the general public on the evolution of piracy especially in the Horn of Africa focusing on Somalia, which has now spread to the western Indian Ocean as well as the west coast of the African continent and as far as, Maldives.

The intensification of piracy during the period 2005 to 2011 led to a lucrative international business opportunity by the formation of PMSCs and eventually led to operation of FAs outside territorial waters of coastal States, which are legally questionable.

Since the root cause of sudden increase of PMSCs and FAs is the unprecedented increase in piracy from land based locations in Somalia it would be appropriate to analyze the political history of Somalia to put this subject into its proper perspective.


Political history of Somalia

It is known that Somalia was an important centere of commerce in the ancient world.

During recent history, Italy acquired full control the region in 1927 which lasted until 1941 and was replaced by the British Military administration. Northern Somalia would remain a protectorate, while southern Somalia was under the United Nations Trusteeship. The regions were united in 1960 to form the independent Republic  of Somalia under a civilian government. Mohamed Siad  Barre seized power in 1969 and established the Somali Democratic Republic. In 1991 Barre’s government was ousted and the Somali Civil War broke out. It is also reported that in 1992 to restore peace in Somalia, the United States led “Operation Hope” sent 30,000 American troops to Somalia and 10, 000 allied troops for peace keeping missions without much success.

After 1991 since there was no central government the Somalis turned to local forms of conflict resolution, consisting of civil law, religious law (Sharia) and customary law. Subsequently a few autonomous regions including Somaliland, Puntland, and Galmudug administrations emerged due to the process of decentralisation.


"The evolution of piracy especially in the Horn of Africa focusing on Somalia, which has now spread to the western Indian Ocean as well as the west coast of the African continent and as far as, Maldives"

In  early 2000s the beginning of interim federal administrations were created after the Transitional National Government (TNG) .This was followed by the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in 2004 which re established  the security forces of Somalia.Further in 2006 the TFG with the support of the Ethiopian army further assumed control of the nation’s southern conflict zones from the newly formed Islamic Courts  Union (ICU). The ICU subsequently split into more radical groups such as Al –Shahaab which fought the TFG and African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) allies for control of the region.

With the defeat of insurgents,  time-frame leading to the establishment of inclusive and permanent democratic institutions was launched.
Within this, an inclusive administrative framework , a Provisional Constitution was passed in August 2012 and designated Somalia as a federation. This event also saw the end of the TFGs interim mandate. Accordingly,   in August 2012 the first permanent central government in the country the Federal Republic of Somalia was formed since the civil war in 1991.

However, it is observed that there is still a lot of dissension among the constituent federal states namely Somaliland, Puntland, and  Galmudug.
The international community has urged that the Government of Somalia should adhere to the “Vision 2016”approved by all concerned players namely the revision, finalisation and approval by referendum of the provisional constitution and then holding of direct national elections and not to undermine the progress that has been made since 2010 in establishing inclusive and new governance institutions in the country.

There is still political instability in the country as evidenced by the appointment of the third cabinet and the third prime minister in February 2015.

It must be stressed that all players especially the United Nations and the Organisation of African States (OAS) should strive to assist Somalia to achieve political stability by ensuring the establishment of democratic processes in good governance through a federal system. This achievement will be a major contribution to world economic stability due to the importance of commercial sea lanes in the region that is a major conduit for safe passage of vessels.

It is envisaged that no sooner a federal system of government is established in the Federal Republic of Somalia there will be not much opportunity for PMSC, FAs and the fears of the littoral states in the region and weapons proliferation will be eliminated.


The report on combating piracy in Somalia

The UN Secretary General in his letter dated 24 January 2011 submitted a report from the Special Adviser on legal issues related to piracy off the coast of Somalia to the Security Council.

The report includes a comprehensive plan with 25 proposals covering new measures to enhance the effectiveness of counter piracy efforts  to combat piracy .The recommendations further stressed the extreme urgency for  effectively implementing a comprehensive multi  dimensional  plan covering Puntland and Somaliland and comprising three main components namely economic ,  security and jurisdictional/rehabilitation  that had to be launched simultaneously.

The economic component includes on a priority basis covering port and fishery operations, livestock exports (cattle and sheep) and the regulated development of telecommunications services as well  as  development of energy resources.

The security component is  to primarily focus on enhancing the national security forces including the Police to secure its borders .The Police should be deployed in areas of lawlessness especially in the south of Somalia.

The intention is to strike at piracy networks by  developing its own intelligence services.

The jurisdictional and rehabilitation component should first give priority to the establishment of a court system within eight months comprising specialized courts in Puntland, Somaliland and an extra territorial Somali court in Arusha, United Republic of Tanzania. The former specialized courts in Puntland and Somaliland are priorities with the possibility of granting them universal jurisdiction to get suspected pirates extradited. The correction /rehabilitation capacities of Puntland and Somaliland by constructing two prisons to hold 500 offenders in each prison should be enhanced.

The total cost of implementation of the plan with the 25 proposals for 3 years (2011-2013) was estimated at US $25 million.
The funding of the above plan was far lower than the overall cost of piracy which amounts to over 500 million US $ a year  that would include costs of insurance, security measures (PMSC) , naval operations  and loss of revenue in key sectors of the economy of the region and damage caused to victims including loss of life.

The 25 proposals are described in detail in Doc S/2011/30 of the UN Security Council and could be accessed from the UN web site.


"The security component is  to primarily focus on enhancing the national security forces including the Police to secure its borders .The Police should be deployed in areas of lawlessness especially in the south of Somalia. "


Impact on international maritime trade due to piracy

In para 28 of the above report it is stated that “Naval operations have helped secure the Gulf of Aden: 33 vessels have been hijacked by pirates in that region since the establishment on the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC) and the Maritime Security Centre –Horn of Africa (MSC-HOA) in early 2009.Yet, between 22,000 and 25, 000 vessels transit through the Suez Canal each year. Every day, 3.3 million barrels of oil are transported through the Bab-el-Mandeb  Strait, representing 30 per cent of the world’s oil supply. As a result, free movement along three critical shipping lanes remains of major economic importance for the entire international community. Insurance premiums are said to have quadrupled for the passage through the zone which is classified as a war zone .However these increased premiums have not yet had an impact on energy prices in Europe nor have they led to the re-routing of traffic through the Cape of Good Hope. Only a few shipping companies have used that route instead of the Suez Canal, because of the ensuing delays(rounding the African continent would add 10  days to shipping times and increase fuel costs by US$ 800,000 to US$ 2.7 million , depending on the size of the vessel)”


PMSCs and Floating Armouries

The issues related to above have been highlighted in the international web sites .

An Insurance Bulletin SEACURUS issue 19- 14 October 2012 (enquiries@seacurus.com ) under the title “Tackling Floating Armouries Issue -Sri Lankan authorities force guns out to sea – a look at what this will mean for PMCs It is relevant to quote from this report as “It is perhaps easy to appreciate the stance of the UK government – as floating  armouries do indeed appear to be on the “fringes of legality”. However, the drop in piracy is well documented and much of the credit has gone to the PMSCs and their armed guards. To hamper this capability, would be to hand the initiative back to the pirates – just when they are on the ropes”

“Using Sri   Lanka as a base for weapons was something which was working well, perhaps too well. The sheer scale of the weaponry being stored was making the authorities twitchy –and fingers have been pointed at some companies for “taking advantage” by storing even more weapons despite requests to scale back. So eventually the patience of the SL government cracked and they ordered the weapons out of the island” Was this the origin for the Sri Lankan floating armouries?

It has also been reported that “Governments such as the UK have reservations about the floating armouries concept, but they also are uncomfortable about the way in which it has been rolled out. Old ships, open registers and some sharp practices have made what could be a solution into yet another problem”

“There has been a dearth of objective information, and this too has hampered the international community in looking towards an approach to the use of floating armouries”

A comprehensive report titled “Floating Armouries Implications and Risks “carried out by the Remote Control Project and the Omega Research Foundation, Oxford Research Group media@remotecontrol project .org  has listed out 13 actions to address some immediate issues related to this subject. The floating Armouries operated by Sri Lanka have been highlighted in this report.

In the above report companies running floating armouries fall into three categories (although activities of some companies may fall into more than one category) namely (a) companies who operate armouries for storage (b) complete service providers -operate storage facilities, but also provide weapons systems for rent by security personnel undertaking operations and (c) fully integrated security service provider supplies logistics ships, operators weapons and ammunition directly”

Page 8 of the report states:
“The main concentration of the armouries is in the Red Sea, Gulf of Oman, and the Indian Ocean. The current security situation in the Gulf of Oman and the Indian  Ocean makes this the current focal point for armouries but this may change especially in relation to the increase in the number of attacks on shipping off the west coast of Africa and in South East Asia. Floating armouries are located at either end of the piracy affected zone, allowing operators to both pick up and drop off weapons outside the High Risk Area (HRA) and also out of territorial jurisdiction.”
There are also details of the number of floating armouries operating in the region. According to the report form 2012 the number varies from 10 to 20. It is also stated that the UN operating report identified 18 vessels owned by 13 companies acting as floating armouries.

Further it is reported that “information released in September 2014 by the UK government suggests that the number of floating armouries may be significantly higher. The UK government confirmed that as 18  September 2014 it had granted   licenses for 90 UK registered PMSCs to use 31 floating armouries licensed for use by UK PMSC’s the actual number of armouries may be higher. We also have details of an additional vessel that is reportedly used as an armoury and operated by US company AdvanFort” (Page 9 of the report).

In Page 10 of the report it is stated that” There are very few national and no international standards governing the operation of floating  armouries  .Sri Lanka and Djibouti do licence floating armouries , however the terms of the licences are not publicly available and so cannot be scrutinized. The UK has extended the Open General Trade Control Licence (Maritime Anti- Piracy ) to allow UK companies to apply for permission to operate floating armouries. Currently there are at least 3 UK companies  licenced to operate these  armouries”
From the above information there is an ambiguity on the number of floating armouries operating in the HRA and the information is shrouded with secrecy.

I would also quote from  the report of the  International  Maritime Organization  (IMO)  Maritime Security  Committee  Ninety –Fifth  Session (MSC 95) held from 3 to 12 June 2015  at the IMO Headquarters in London. Page 9 of this report states under the heading Floating Armouries “Whilst most merchant ships use Privately Contracted Armed Security Personnel (PCASP) many coastal States in the region are not prepared to provide armoury , magazine and storage facilities for PCASP equipment in their port areas .Consequently , a number of floating armouries were set up by private companies providing a service around High Risk areas where weapons, ammunition and security –related equipment could be stored on vessels outside territorial waters of coastal States”

“MSC 95 shared the concerns over this practice, however, could not agree to how to approach this issue, owing to various legal issues, and invited members to submit concrete proposals on possible solutions to MSC 96”


"As a result, free movement along three critical shipping lanes remains of major economic importance for the entire international community"

It must be stated that proposals from the members of the IMO Maritime Security Committee are awaited at the next session.

I  also like to quote a paper submitted by  India to the IMO MSC 94th session on the subject of “Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships”  ( MSC 94/14/2) Regarding “floating armouries” where the Executive summary reads ”The document seeks to highlight the need to deliberate on the evolving issues merchant ships being used as “floating armouries”  the urgent need for developing guidelines  for regulating “floating armouries” Attention is  to  paras  9 and 10 related to Actions requested of the committee

Para 9 “to develop interim guidelines for regulating the operation of “floating armouries “and, in the meantime , encourage all States whose merchant vessels operate as “floating armouries” to inform the whereabouts and details of such vessels to the concerned coastal State.”
Para 10 “Revisit MSC 1/Cir1405 /Rev2 dated 25 May  2012 to insert, under paragraph 5.21., line 2 after the word HRA”or to the concerned Coastal  State when intending to transit or transiting it’s EEZ within the coordinates of the HRA.”

It is  very evident from the above reports that there is no internationally  accepted legal  framework for operating PMSCs as well as floating armouries and the  Government of Sri Lanka should strive to give its recommendations to the relevant   UN  agencies as well as the IMO  after studying the issues involved.


Recommendations and conclusions

In this article I have attempted to very briefly analyze the nexus between piracy , PMSCs and Floating Armouries where the latter two issues were the subjects of  controversy with law makers putting forward for and against such operations.
However the main issue that remains is the subject of piracy in the Horn of Africa precipitated by the destabilization of Somalia since the early 1990’s  by the civil war.

The process of political stabilization in  Somalia commenced in  2000   with the establishment of  the Transitional National Government (TNG)  followed by the Transitional Federal Government (TFG)  and culminated in 20 August 2012  with the internationally recognized Federal Government of Somalia including the three  main federated states of Somaliland, Puntland and Galmudung.

Although there are still some serious  residual issues to be addressed by the newly established federal government , some  stability has been achieved and by 2016 it is expected that the Federal Government of Somalia will go for a referendum to approve the provisional constitution  followed by the election of  a democratic government   the same year.  Federal Government of Somalia is internationally recognized as Somalia’s official central government. It occupies  seats in the UN, African Union Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Diplomatic missions have been re  opened or opened  in Mogadishu the capital of the central government by Ethiopia, Djibouti, India, , Turkey, Iran and United Kingdom as  well as Qatar and China. In January 2013 United States announced that it was set to exchange diplomatic notes with the new central government of Somalia re establishing official ties with the country after 20 years and with the visit of the US Secretary of State John Kerry recently, diplomatic ties were renewed.

I  am not aware  whether Sri Lanka is contemplating establishing diplomatic ties with the federal government of Somalia  following our neighbour India. It is my opinion that the incidence of piracy has diminished considerably not only with the operation of PMSCs but also the process of stabilisation that is currently underway in Somalia.

In order to effectively contribute to safety of merchant shipping in the region and the strategic importance of Somalia , it is recommended that Sri Lanka should first explore the possibility of establishing diplomatic relations and help  on a bi lateral basis in the following areas:

1. Setting up of an internationally recognized judicial system with the respective courts at federal and central level and rehabilitation of convicted pirates.

2. Assistance in development of a fully fledged army, navy, air force and coast guard unit to combat piracy.

3. Assistance in declaration of Somali ocean space in terms of UNCLOS.

4.  Development of ITC services and setting up of a Telecommunication  Regulatory Authority.

5. Assistance to the  central government on developing a law on oil exploration and exploitation with signing of production sharing contracts and related fiscal systems with foreign oil exploration  and development companies.

6. Development of livestock for export.

7. Exploration for ground water and industrial minerals.

It has also been reported that the drilling of the first exploration well in over 20 years has  commenced in Puntland Somalia(ref Next Investors  (http:www.nextinvestors.com)      and  http://bit.ly/xsVi9t ‘ This well is targeting 1.2 billion barrels of oil. It is also learnt that many international oil companies (IOCs) including Shell, Conoco –Phillips and ARMOCO had obtained exploration licences back in the 1980s and 1990’s and conducted considerable exploration and drilling over large parts of Puntland both on shore and off  shore and are expected to return to these areas soon which will trigger the next oil rush. On 23  September 2015  BBC reported that “Somalia’s bright  oil prospects stir hostilities” and  that there are conflicts between the centre and federal state of Puntland over the issue of exploration licences.

When the security in the region is established and more economic activity commences especially in exploration for oil and other non renewable resources the people of the Republic will give up piracy as a source of earning a living due to the high risks involved. Accordingly, as a littoral State in the  Indian Ocean which is more a bridge from the western to eastern Indian Ocean and vice  versa,  it will be highly beneficial to assist the Government of the Republic of Somalia to establish a more stable and peaceful country with is the  strategic gateway from the west to the east and east to west.


(The writer is a retired Economic Affairs Officer, United Nations ESCAP  and can be reached at fasttrack@eol.lk )

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