Asian shipowners will lobby the global shipping industry to back a proposal for the deployment of United Nations troops on merchant ships in order to combat pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean.
Elvin Tan, executive officer of the Asian Shipowners' Forum in Singapore, confirmed approaches would be made to groups including Intertanko, which represents tanker owners, Bimco, and the International Chamber of Shipping. The forum's members include shipowning groups in Hong Kong, China and Taiwan.
Tim Wilkins, Asia-Pacific regional manager for Intertanko Asia in Singapore, said he had received initial details from the forum on Wednesday and that these had been forwarded to Intertanko's London headquarters.
Tan said that if the forum's proposal was accepted it would see armed military personnel, sponsored and managed by the UN, providing protection to merchant ships and their crews transiting pirate-infested waters. The troops could use floating bases to transfer to and from merchant ships, Tan said. Further details, including who would pay for the troops and which countries would commit soldiers, would have to be worked out later, he added.
Tan agreed that while some countries are squeezing defence budgets, others had military assets that could be deployed. He also agreed army personnel would probably be 'sea-sick all the way', so naval personnel or marines would be favoured.
Tan said a summary of its proposal was given at a working group meeting of the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia in Washington DC on February 28. The plan is expected to be submitted to a meeting of another working group in London later this year. The contact group was established in January 2009 under a UN security council resolution to facilitate action by states and organisations to suppress piracy.
The forum's idea is similar to a scheme put forward by the Singapore Shipping Association last July that floating hotels in the Red Sea, Sri Lanka and Madagascar be used to deploy UN troops on board commercial ships. The association estimated it would take 6,000 UN peacekeepers to safeguard the 1,200-1,500 ships transiting through the Indian Ocean at any one time. Intertanko, Bimco and the International Chamber of Shipping also urged the deployment of UN forces in a letter to UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon in August.
Arthur Bowring, managing director of the Hong Kong Shipowners' Association, said shipowners and ships' captains are currently liable if somebody is killed or injured by an armed guard employed on board a ship. This liability would be avoided if troops could be deployed, he said.
However, commenting on the plan, Dom Mee, president of armed security company Protection Vessels International, said: 'It's rather reinventing the wheel; the private sector is already providing the service. The military are already embroiled in an international incident in India which is damaging to the whole effort.'
This was a reference to the incident on February 15 when two Indian fishermen were allegedly shot dead by two Italian marines on board an Italian-registered tanker. The marines have been remanded in custody and Indian judges have so far resisted Italian calls for their release. Tan would not comment on the incident or its impact on the forum's proposal.
Mee said: 'The question is 'What would ship owners prefer? Highly trained ex-Royal Marine commandos well trained in anti-piracy or a Blue Beret from anywhere?''