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03/11/2013 | On Floating Armories, Counter Piracy and a Tragic Case of Indian Misidentification

Martin Edwin Andersen

As master, crew and guards of the counter-piracy operator support vessel (OSV), the MV SEAMAN GUARD OHIO, remain prisoners in India’s degrading and dangerous jail system, the Indian case is proof positive of the ignorance that often midwives debates about international maritime security generally, and the role of private maritime security companies (PMSCs) in particular.

 

The public drama and private pain caused by widespread erroneous reporting on the case are underlined by the simple fact that the captive SG OHIO is not a (perhaps justifiably) dreaded “floating armory”—a term nonetheless bandied about by the uninformed, as can be seen in much of the media coverage.

In fact, the use of OSVs was specifically incorporated by the SG OHIO’s operator, AdvanFort International,  in order to avoid—in the words offered earlier this year by its chief executive officer—an “absence of regulation [that results in floating armories] being vulnerable to attack from the same maritime denizens they are meant to protect against.”

Yet, even though that public interest concern was already a matter of record, often-wild speculation has pushed such critical facts to the sidelines.

Inexplicably, AdvanFort’s stated policy to avoid the recognized professional pitfalls implicit in the use of floating armories was ignored by those pushing to put the SG OHIO mothballed into detention.

“A special force of the state police arrested all the 35 people on board Seaman Guard Ohio, a floating armory, in an early morning raid,” an Indian police official claimed, basking the comfortable condition of anonymity, to Xinhua news service.

“My suspicion is that the boat is a floating armory for private security agencies protecting against pirates,” Indian Deputy National Security Advisor Nehchal Sandhu was quoted by theLos Angeles Times.

“Indian police say they arrested 35 people aboard a U.S.-owned ship Friday and charged them with entering India’s waters with a large cache of weapons,” the Los Angeles Times went on to claim, again incorrectly.

Perhaps inadvertently, the news story added gas to the fire by calling its plight one “that spotlights largely unregulated security contractors operating on the high seas”—as if the MV OHIO was a case in point as a floating armory with a “large cache” of weapons, which clearly it is not.

The “large cache” claimed by the newspaper’s Indian informants was itself put to pad by an otherwise critical and misleading story in India Today, entitled “Why the Seaman Guard Ohio is a worry for coastal security,” a medium which itself offered a curious rational for what could become, if appropriate measures are not taken, the wanton criminalization of seafarers: “Coast Guard officials fear non-state actors could use anti-piracy operations to land weapons and explosives on India’s coastline.”

Only the ignorant would think that, on a counter-piracy vessel well known to southern Indian ports where it frequently docked, 34 rifles and one pistol for a crew and guard of 35 individuals somehow actually suggested and “arms trafficking” plot (“land weapons and explosives” was the incendiary take of India Today) or a violation of the Indian Arms Act—claims which have put 35 innocent people in jail.

The angst suffered in India over concern about the purposes of foreign floating armories in nearby international waters can be partly explained by still-smoldering nightmares arising from the 2011 terrorist attack in Mombai, often politicized fires that are stoked by upcoming and bitterly-contested national elections in that country.

Obviously, with Indians still concerned about national security in the middle of national election, some may find it useful to cast a U.S. company like Advanfort as a pawn in a much larger game.

Concern about the role (and potential dangers) of floating armories is not limited to AdvanFort and India—ironically cast as foes in a case of the SG OHIO, but both acting in their own ways to effectively recast maritime security issues for better protection.

In an interview last June on Maritime TV sponsored by Piracy Daily, U.S. State Department Coordinator on Counter Piracy and Maritime Security Donna Hopkins noted that: “The advent of floating armories is a logical outcome of the fact that private maritime security companies need ways to transfer weapons and arm people on and off the ships that they are guarding in transit through countries. And the complexity and lack of homogeneity and standardization among port states with regard to regulations on transportation and the carriage of arms have given rise to floating armories.”

At the same time, Ms. Hopkins continued: “Most of these floating armories operate in international waters, which makes it rather difficult for the flag states concerned to exercise effective oversight.”

The U.S. government, she added, speaking generally but in an analysis of perhaps particular interest to a vulnerable India, has “concerns about the inherent safety of these vessels, their vulnerability to corruption or diversion by malignant actors. … including pirates, but especially terrorists or others with malign intent.”

In addition, in a Piracy Daily column, “Counter Piracy and the Flag About Floating Armories,” respected maritime lawyer John A.C. Cartner warned a few days later: “One can be assured that the U.S government is watching carefully floating armories. It may not be the best place to put one’s money in the on-going battle against pirates and their ilk.”

Ms. Hopkins’ reflections and those of Dr. Cartner came a month after William H. Watson, the AdvanFort president, wrote an important—if optimistic—Piracy Daily column entitled“AdvanFort OSV Network Safely Floats Past Growing ‘Floating Armory’ Debate.”

PMSCs that rely on such “unregulated ‘floating armories’–meant to avoid arms smuggling laws when they lay offshore ports in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean,“ he wrote, “have created their own, apparently-deepening concerns, as recent U.S. government efforts in this regard show.”

Captain Watson continued:

“It is important to remember that in just a few years, the number of private maritime security firms has gone from just a handful to more than two hundred today, a number of which are clearly “wanna-bees” and “fly-by-nighters” whose substandard performance threatens both our industry and those owners, operators and seafarers that AdvanFort is determined to protect.

“The uncertain legal status of the floating armories means that industry critics are increasingly concerned that not only does the absence of regulation result in their being vulnerable to attack from the same maritime denizens they are meant to protect against, but also that any such potential looting by pirates could mean international maritime organized crime is, in fact, strengthened at this critical time.

“At AdvanFort, we have been able to offer a unique alternative to these concerns with our pre-deployed operator support vessel (OSV) network in the piracy High Risk Area in and around the Gulf of Aden. This market-driven remedy for those seeking secure transit in one of the world’s most dangerous maritime regions is an example of how publicly-lauded “best practices” also make bottom-line sense for those who need it the most.”

A necessary antidote to the accusations now being casually repeated in both the Indian and U.S. press, President Watson noted last May:

“Unlike the floating armories, AdvanFort does not use our OSVs to charge third-party guards (i.e. private ‘cowboy’ operators) for storage of weapons and ammunition. Additionally, AdvanFort also restricts access only to those extensively vetted and highly trained AdvanFort guards. Because of this above-board, on-board focus, we have the possibility to work closely with local officials, harbormasters and those others necessary to constantly improve and strengthen bonds that are critically important.

“We also take strong measures to make sure its weapons/ammunition are not hijacked by pirates/terrorists.”

Despite this, 25 SG OHIO guards—all well-vetted and trained military retirees—holding a total of 35 rifles, traveling on an OSV meant to be a solution for possible threats acknowledged by Ms. Hopkins and the Indian government, as well as Captain Watson himself, are somehow accused of “gun running” or other possible links to maritime denizens.

The background to this conundrum?

As Dr. Cartner penetratingly outlined in Piracy Daily:

“First and foremost, port states have no uniform laws—if they have any laws—on the importation, exportation or storage of weapons. Most such laws are contained in vaguely-worded customs regulations requiring that weapons be declared within territorial, contiguous or customs waters and perhaps kept under seal under the master’s care. Some states view weapons within their jurisdictions as destabilizing. However there is no real control of weapons outside the jurisdiction provided by domestic laws or conventions to which a state is signatory.”

It was perhaps American author and humorist Mark Twain who said it best: “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Twain’s is a message that needs to distributed widely to press and policymakers alike.

And in that regard, the importance of “getting it right the first time” comes to mind as “global economic power shifts to the east, [and] maintaining prosperity and stability across the diverse Indian Ocean region has become imperative,” a point driven home t0day (Saturday) in the joint declaration of India’s External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid; Julie Bishop, the Australian Foreign Minister, and Marty Natalegawa, the Foreign Minister of Indonesia.

However, it is perhaps Peter Cook, the chief executive officer for the Security Association for the Maritime Industry (SAMI), who provides the most critical context for what is going on.

CEO Cook often underscores the point that, in the years to come, world maritime commerce will only become even more important in terms of size, reach and commonweal.

If only because of this, he adds, fundamental questions regarding security cannot be ignored, and the solutions offered need to seen as key building blocks for ensuring a better tomorrow. 

For those reasons and more, Piracy Daily strongly supports the immediate liberation of the SG OHIO seafarers and, upon their release, the quick resolution by the International Maritime Organization and other relevant organizations of the problems—real and imagined—created by floating armories.

The challenges facing the maritime community are too many and too imposing to do any less at this critical time.

© Martin Edwin Andersen, 2013, all rights reserved. “On Floating Armories, Counter Piracy and a Tragic Case of Misidentification,” may be copied and distributed with attribution to Martin Edwin Andersen and Piracy Daily.

Piracy Daily (Estados Unidos)

 



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