Private Contractors in Anti-Piracy Operations in the Gulf of Aden


Michon Motzouris, Intern, Security Sector Governance Programme, ISS Pretoria Office

Since 2005 piracy off the coast of Somalia, in the Gulf of Aden, experienced rapid expansion and development. According to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1984, piracy involves any illegal acts of violence or detention for private ends against the crew or passengers of a private ship on the high seas or outside the jurisdiction of any State. Piracy in the Gulf of Aden initially developed as a response by local fisherman to the illegal over-fishing of Somali waters by foreign fishing vessels, leading to a major depletion of fish-stocks. These local fishermen-turned-pirates realized that the financial rewards of piracy far outweighed those of the fishing industry. In fact, since 2005, the piracy industry in Somalia has become so lucrative that the pools of potential pirate recruits are overflowing, as it is seen as a possible method of escaping large-scale poverty experienced by the majority of the Somali population.

The fact that Somalia has been without a central government for almost 20 years contributes to the thriving development of illegal operations in this country. Additional funding provided by terrorist groups operating in this volatile area in an attempt to further destabilise the country also subsidised the success of Somali pirates. Pirates in this area attack and hijack vessels, often taking those on board hostage, in exchange for large ransoms. While initially violence was rather minimal in hostage situations, a drastic increase in violence by pirates has become visible in the last year. According to the International Maritime Organization, 406 acts of piracy and armed robbery were reported worldwide in 2009, 489 in 2010 and 214 incidents were reported in the first four months of 2011.

The Gulf of Aden is very important to the maritime industry as it provides the shortest and most direct route for shipments moving from Asia to the America’s and vice versa. Piracy in this area has provided a major obstacle to the maritime industry and shipping companies have attempted to come up with a number of solutions to this piracy problem. These include rerouting ships around the Cape of Good Hope at a very high economic cost, estimated at approximately $3.5 million dollars per year in additional fuel costs, not to mention the indirect costs, such as the loss of trade for the Suez Canal in Egypt. Some companies have requested military assistance from their home state.

The involvement of national militaries is incredibly expensive, and has shifted piracy operations further into the Indian Ocean, where operations are more difficult to detect. Pirates have been increasing their range from the Gulf of Aden as far off as the coasts of Kenya and Mozambique. Shipping companies have also attempted unarmed defensive measures, such as the use of high-pressure hoses, electric handrails, barbed wire and rope nets, to little success.

While many methods have been suggested for tackling piracy, including the redevelopment of the Somali government and rule of law, as well as cutting of pirate funding and financing, these are all long-term solutions. With the increase in violence by pirates, private military and security companies (PMSCs) could provide an interim short-term solution to the problem of piracy in the Gulf of Aden. PMSCs provide a range of services to assist in the battle against piracy, including risk assessment and consulting, training, logistics support, vessel tracking, provision of armed guards, and crisis response to hijackings. Private security personnel are highly trained and are able to adapt and improvise in a variety of difficult situations. 

The use of PMSCs in anti-piracy operations has arguably proven to be a bit of a grey area in terms of laws and regulations. Laws are often unclear and generally discuss the use of PMSCs against civilians in direct armed conflict. This is not applicable to the situation in the Horn of Africa as piracy does not necessarily takes place within armed conflicts and does not necessarily involve any states. It is rather a case of private actors against non-state actors. Due to this unclear policy on the use of private security on vessels, many companies have opted to use private forces under a code of silence. This in turn means that when acts of piracy or attempted piracy occurs in the presence of private security, they are often unreported and therefore uninvestigated.

Resulting from the lack of a better option, the International Maritime Organisations (IMO) Maritime Safety Committee, in conjunction with the United Nations, agreed to interim guidelines on the use of privately contracted armed security personnel on board ships in high-risk piracy areas in May 2011. These guidelines do not endorse the use of PMSCs, and suggest that PMSCs could only be used once a comprehensive risk assessment has been carried out. The guidelines highlight the possible negative consequences of using PMSCs, including the possibility of increased violence with the use of firearms and armed personnel on board vessels. They also do not fully address the legal issue of the use of PMSCs in anti-piracy operations. It is suggested that private security should be employed in conjunction with Best Management Practices in order to deter piracy off the Coast of Somalia, and that the vessel Master must be involved in the privatization decision-making process. Most importantly, the Master retains the overall command and control of the vessel.

Despite these concerns, the IMO has recognized the need for safety of the crew and passengers on board the vessels in high-risk areas, and self-protection seems to be the best way to ensure that at present. While the use of PMSCs in anti-piracy operations is an expensive option, it has arguably proven to be the most effective method to date. Although the numbers of PMSCs in these operations are not very well known due to the secrecy of contracts between companies and the PMSCs, it is estimated that approximately 1 in 10 vessels carried private armed security personnel before the guidelines were developed. This number is likely to increase drastically in the coming months in an effort to overcome piracy in the Gulf of Aden.