Armed guards big issue for captains

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 July, 2011, 12:00am


Hiring armed guards to protect ships and crews in pirate-infested waters could expose civilian captains to risks and responsibilities they are not trained to handle, a veteran mariner said yesterday.

As Hong Kong and mainland shipowners plan to arm their ships and hire guards to fend off pirates, questions have been raised about crew safety and how to manage the guards.

Reverend Stephen Miller, senior chaplain at the Mission to Seafarers in Hong Kong, said while the ship's captain is responsible for the crew and the vessel, armed guards are the responsibility of the shipowner, under Marine Department rules.

But in theory, if the unexpected did happen and crew members were hurt, the captain would bear the ultimate responsibility. This could lead to criminal charges against the captain under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The pastor, who gained first-hand experience of the impact of piracy when he headed the seafarers' mission in Dubai before moving to Hong Kong, said: 'My biggest concern is the safety of seafarers.'

He said there had already been 480 cases of seamen being tortured by pirates, and 62 seafarers had died in the last couple of years.

Quoting shipping industry figures, the pastor said 8 per cent of the world's shipping in tonnage terms was travelling through the Indian Ocean at any one time. These ships had on board about 100,000 crew members, out of the 1.2 million seamen employed on ocean-going vessels worldwide.

He said some kind of certification of personnel was needed to ensure the guards had sufficient experience and were legitimately able to be armed. So far there are no regulations governing security standards, although the Security Association for the Maritime Industry, based in Britain, has been formed to identify reputable companies providing armed guards.

Several Hong Kong and mainland shipping companies insist on using firms employing former British Royal Marines or special forces troops.

One Hong Kong shipowner said ex-marines were preferred because they had sea-going experience and were more able to get along with the ships' crew.

In a two-page letter sent to shipowners, operators and ship managers earlier this year, the Marine Department said 'thorough due diligence' must be done 'on the security consultants, as there is no established organisation to vet such companies'. This condition was one of six it imposed before allowing arms to be carried on board ship.

Among the others was that 'the weapons are possessed by the master, or by a person who is authorised by the owner or person in charge of the vessel to have such possession'.

The lack of proper accreditation of security companies meant some ship insurers in Hong Kong had been approached by shipowners either to recommend or vet security companies or deal with contractual issues over the use of armed guards, but they denied using a so-called 'white list' of preferred security companies.

Miller said the guards' working hours also needed to be clarified. He pointed out that under maritime rules seafarers must have 77 hours of rest a week, but there were no such controls on armed guards at sea. As a result they could be tired when they join a new ship, having just finished an earlier transit.

A typical voyage between the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden takes four to five days.

Miller said Hong Kong and other flag states should at least make a recommendation about the number of armed guards that should be placed on board ship.

He said: 'Piracy is not going to go away until a solution is found on land. If there was no safe place on land to take the ship, the whole business model [of piracy] would fall apart.'