Monday, August 3, 2009

Shipboard guards as an effective deterrent to piracy: Let the buyer beware

The issue of whether vessels transiting piracy-prone waters, such as off the Horn of Africa, might rely on private security firms to help ensure the safety of civilian crews hasn't exactly been very successful to date. There was that security team aboard the MT Biscaglia last November that was unable to do much when a group of Somali pirates attacked the tanker and seized the ship and her crew (see here and here, if you've forgotten the incident). Then we watched as Blackwater touted their vessel McArthur as an available platform to help mariners, only to see few takers and some strange goings-on with the firm's hired hands (see here, and a note that Blackwater has re-christened themselves with one of those arcane corporate names - Xe).

Now word comes from the Courthouse News Service that Tyco Telecommunications is suing two firms contracted to protect its cable-laying vessels working off East Africa from pirates. As the CN report lays out, Tyco feels that the firms - based in Georgia and Serbia- failed to do, well, much of anything, though they had been been paid something in the nature of a million dollars as an advance. The report says that after hiring the security firms, Tyco saw something "worse than a comedy of errors, with gross incompetence accompanied by several false and misleading claims", according to court documents (Tyco is suing the two firms for a million-plus in Manhattan Federal Court).

There are an awful lot of people trying to find a way to angle in on the piracy business, as providers of security for mariners affected. And I'm not saying they're all bad. But there's a lot of money to be made doing this, and a lot of people who watched as other firms enriched themselves in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. So why not shift into the maritime protection business? Yet we have not seen any effective deterrent provided by private enterprises - to date - though the issue of piracy is far from new. Makes one wonder whether opportunity and need have been superceded by ability and greed.

Also, I'd point out a small detail in the CN report that says that Tyco Telecom has already responded to the threat of pirate attacks by, "'hardening' its ships against boarding, installing razor wire and sealing access points. It also hired armed shipboard guards and developed contingency plans to meet the Somali pirate threat."

Note the last sentence. If correct, this American firm has already embarked armed personnel aboard its vessels. (According to the CN report, the hiring of additional security - such as the firms Tyco is now suing in New York City - is an additional layer of protection that came in the wake of the Maersk Alabama incident.)

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