Meanwhile, security firms promote code of conduct and ethics to keep out ‘cowboys’
The Indian government will allow armed guards aboard the country’s merchant ships to ward off pirates. A report carried by the Times of India quotes Director General of Shipping SB Agnihotri as saying, "We have decided to allow the armed guards on Indian flagged merchant vessels. The standard operating procedures (SOP) for the recruitment of armed guards and use of firearms will be finalised within in a month." Shipowners will be given the mandate to use former defence personnel as armed guards. "We are not comfortable with the thought of allowing private security guards as their unknown background can pose a risk to the lives of crew members."
The move comes after the number of pirate attacks have sharply increased, and after the furore created by the ‘Asphalt Venture’ hijack. The pirates kept six Indians back when releasing that vessel last month after a reported $3.5 million ransom was paid, intending to use the hostages as bargaining chips to negotiate- with the Indian government- the release of well over a hundred suspected Somali pirates in Indian custody. A high-level joint cabinet committee in India had met after the incident and examined the prospect of deploying armed commandos in plainclothes on merchant vessels. Comprising of the secretaries of the ministries of home, external affairs, shipping, and law, the committee examined whether Indian naval commandoes could be utilised along the lines of sky marshals deployed in the US on commercial aircraft. Widespread opinion at the time said that India was perceived as the prime target of Somali pirates, following robust Indian naval actions since January against them.
The Indian National Ship Owners' Association (INSA) and the National Union of Seafarers of India (NUSI) have welcomed the decision of the shipping ministry, the TOI says, quoting INSA chief executive officer Anil Devli, "India does not have a policy of allowing armed guards. This move will definitely provide a sense of security to the crew members threatened by pirates.”
In connected developments, maritime security firms across the world are coming together to create a code of conduct and ethics with the launch of the Security Association for the Maritime Industry (SAMI). With a surge in security providers, some with questionable backgrounds, shipowners are hard pressed to decide which ones are most suitable. To manage what some say is a complex mess, SAMI wants to ‘bring together security providers and the maritime industry to forge robust, reliable and reassuring vetting processes and standards’. SAMI founder Peter Cook points out quality issues with some security agencies, “It is fair to say that the current business opportunity is attracting companies who have gained experience ashore rather than at sea. This does have implications for the quality of service, the understanding of seafarers and ships, and of the foundations many start-up firms are built upon.”
One commentator says that finding an appropriate security firm today is, for the shipowner, like finding a random plumber, pointing out that many security guards are just ‘cowboys’. One hopes that the Indian armed response to piracy will be better organised than that.