Frustrated by Somali pirates who have turned the Indian Ocean into a "wild west" of lawlessness, international shipping groups have petitioned the United Nations to create an armed military force to help protect merchant vessels.
In an August letter to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, four trade associations — the International Chamber of Shipping, the Baltic and International Maritime Council (BIMCO), Intercargo and Intertanko — urged the U.N. to take a tougher stance against piracy, which is increasingly putting ships and crews at risk.
"It is now abundantly clear to shipping companies that the current situation, whereby control of the Indian Ocean has been ceded to pirates, requires a bold new strategy," the letter states. "To be candid, the current approach is not working."
While naval patrols by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and individual countries have helped reduce the number of vessels and mariners seized by pirates in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean, the number of attacks continues to climb. According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), attacks in the first six months of 2011 increased to 163 from 100 a year earlier, with pirates holding 15 vessels and 277 hostages for ransom as of the end of September 2011.
To fight back, shipping companies have employed "hardening" techniques aboard vessels — the installation of razor wire, searchlights and alarms — along with private guards. But contracting for armed protection has come with its own risks.
Cyrus Mody, manager of the IMB, said many shipping companies face legal complications when they put armed private contractors aboard their vessels.
"Sometimes the flag of a vessel does not allow arms to be carried aboard it, let alone used," he said. "If the owner does not have this permission and he puts them on board, he is at the outset breaking the rule of the flag."
A bigger problem, Mody said, is that there is currently no regulation governing how private security contractors operate in regard to training, equipment, rules of engagement and liability — even if they have permission from a flag state.
"There is no hard document that says points A, B and C will have to be followed by a private security team for it to operate in the marine environment," he said. "You have an entire spectrum of companies, from the very good to the absolute cowboys. There's an extremely high possibility that innocent people at sea will get killed because of the lack of regulation. — With U.N. personnel aboard, you eliminate the problem or at least minimize it."
Bill Box, a spokesman for Intertanko, said vessels that implement best management practices to deter and evade pirates lower their risk significantly. If operators still feel they are vulnerable, armed U.N. personnel would take a lot of uncertainty out of the equation by providing a regulated source of protection.
"In the marketplace today, there are some people who have a fancy-sounding name and precious little firearms training," Box said. "If you run a risk assessment and feel that you need to put armed guards on your ship, then this would provide a pool of properly trained independent people who could protect ships under the auspices of the U.N."
Box said the number of armed U.N. personnel required "would depend on how many turn out to be needed," and that he doesn't foresee vessels flying the U.N. flag as a deterrent. If the letter to Ban Ki-moon doesn't generate an international response, Box said that shipping organizations are hopeful that it will spur individual governments to up the ante in the fight against piracy.
"It's extremely difficult when we're in a world economic downturn and everyone is making cutbacks," he said. "Nevertheless, that doesn't stop us from pushing."