The detention of the Sierra Leone-flagged special purpose vessel Seaman Guard Ohio — a ‘floating armoury’, which supplies privately contracted armed security personnel (PCASP) to clients’ cargo ships to protect them in high risk areas (HRA) of piracy — has exposed a ‘nebulous area’ in the legality of the rapidly growing practice.

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) stopped short of whole-heartedly endorsing the deployment of armed guards to secure vessels transiting through notified piracy hotspots, maintaining it should never substitute the ‘best management practices’ laid down for cargo ships to evade attacks. IMO’s revised guidelines promulgated last year categorically stated that cargo vessels using private armed guards should operate within the legal framework of their flag State.

“Furthermore, it is also important to note that port and coastal States’ laws may also apply to such ships,” said the agency’s interim guidance to shop owners, operators and shipmasters.

Seaman Guard Ohio, operated by the U.S.-based AdvanFort off Galle in Sri Lanka, has been in the business of supplying armed security personnel to their clients’ ships passing through the Indian Ocean Region, which was demarcated by global agencies as a High-Risk Area (HRA) after some incidents of piracy were reported west of the Lakshadweep archipelago over two years ago.

The classification labelled areas west of 78 degree east longitude, meaning almost the entire Arabian Sea, at a high risk of piracy, prompting ship owners and operators to resort to counter piracy initiatives, which included empanelment of armed guards on board.

However, the practice gave rise to widespread apprehensions and our worst fears came true when Enrica Lexie happened, said a senior naval official. “The detention of Seaman Guard Ohio has exposed another grey area,” he said.

“While right of innocent passage is given for any vessel in the international waters, the laws of the coastal State are binding over its territorial waters [up to 12 nautical miles from the coast line]. However, under international conventions like Suppression of Unlawful Activities Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation (SUA), agencies of the coastal State can board and search vessels suspected to be involved in criminal acts. They can also chase down and apprehend a suspected rogue vessel outside its internal waters for a crime committed within it,” pointed out a maritime expert.

A top Coast Guard official said Seaman Guard Ohio had sought bunkering at Indian ports even before. “The ship gave a pre-arrival notification (PAN) before berthing at Cochin Port in August this year for refuelling. As we were tracking it, we went aboard and searched the vessel, but it was without armed personnel or weapon stockpile. As is the practice adopted by such private security agencies, which have mushroomed lately, they would have transferred everything to another vessel before entering our waters,” he said.

However, this time around, the agency apprehended the vessel when it came as close as 15 nautical miles — just outside the international maritime boundary line. “Understandably, they were low on fuel and even bought illegally some 1,500 litres of fuel from a trawler. But it is a cause for concern that a ship with armed personnel and ammunition stock could loiter so close to our shores. What if the arms got into wrong hands? In the past, we have come across a case of an armed guard issuing threat to the master of the vessel. It points to the need for a national system of registration and regulation of such vessels moving hugging our shores,” said the official.

The IMO guidelines unambiguously state that “the master [of the vessel] should report to the appropriate military authorities when a ship intending to transit, or transiting, the HRA is carrying PCASP [armed guards], firearms and security-related equipment on board.”

“If anything, the incident only strengthens India’s plea for a rollback of the notified piracy zone, as the Arabian Sea has been free of piracy for sometime now,” said a Coast Guard official.

‘Not in the loop’

Gautam Chatterjee, Director General of Shipping, said he wasn’t really in the loop concerning the detention of Seaman Guard Ohio. “The security agencies are investigating the case and we don’t have any concrete information on the developments. So, there’s no need to press the panic button,” he told The Hindu when asked if India would reconsider its stance on embarking armed guards on merchant vessels for security.

  • Seaman Guard Ohio had sought bunkering at Indian ports even before: top Coast Guard official

  • ‘It is a cause for concern that a ship with armed personnel and ammunition stock could loiter so close to our shores’