NAIROBI, Kenya – There’s not a warship for miles, a small pirate skiff is speeding toward you and there’s no way the creaking tub you’re on can outrun the bandits. How long do you wait before you shoot?
It’s just one of many possible dilemmas facing an increasing number of private security companies who offer armed escorts – known in the industry as “shipriders” – from Somali pirates.
The few companies that have begun offering armed escorts say their services have become increasingly popular since the April hijacking of the American-flagged Maersk Alabama, particularly among U.S. shipowners. One company – Hart Security UK – has reported a fourfold increase in escorted trips since it began offering them in October.
But legal problems abound for ships that carry guns.
The first hurdle is making sure the countries where ships embark and disembark the weapons will allow them to do so – a legal nightmare in corrupt Middle Eastern ports with terrorism problems.
Then there’s the issue of which law applies onboard the ship if a weapon is discharged: the shooter’s nationality, the law of the country whose flag the ship is flying, or the territorial waters of the country the ship is in.
In at least one case, a private security consultant said, an armed team had rented weapons from the Djibouti government, then was forced to drop them over the side of the ship to avoid illegally importing them into the country where they were due to disembark. The consultant asked for anonymity because he did not wish to compromise his business.
Kenneth C. Randall, the Dean of the University of Alabama School of Law and an expert in international piracy law, said there were complex issues for companies providing legally armed private guards.
“Commercial vessels have the right of innocent passage through most coastal waters. Some nations might say once you’re armed, you’re no longer innocent,” he said.