18 September, 2021

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Arsenals Set Afloat –  Is It Defence Or Offence?

By Ayesh Indranath Ranawaka

Ayesh Ranawaka

The phenomenon of piracy has ancient roots. Known to have begun over 2000 years ago in ancient Greece, then ‘sea robbers’ were threatening the trade routes.

The practice has continued to prevail among maritime nations leading to the establishment of regular Navies. Although piracy has not returned to what it was back in ancient times, it reared its ugly head again in the Indian ocean with the Somali civil war and the disbandment of the Somalian Navy in the early 2000s.

The Indian Ocean region consists of 28 states and spans 3 continents. She holds the most important trade routes connecting the Middle East, Africa and East Asia with America and Europe. In addition to this, the Indian Ocean region is home to 16.8% of the world’s proven oil reserves and 27.9% of the proven natural gas reserves.

The brutal attacks conducted by the Somali Pirates in 2008 and 2010 rang alarm bells across the world as they threatened to choke the vital sea routes for years to come.

Piracy is not so much organized crime as it is a business, characterized by extremely efficient capital flows, low start-up costs, and few entry barriers,” said Jay Bahadur in his book, The Pirates of Somalia; Inside Their Hidden World. As the upsurge of attacks started to expand from the Gulf of Aden to the wider Indian Ocean it became evident that the future of the shipping industry was on the verge of collapse.

This lead commercial shipowners to contract private armed guards when their vessels were transiting these designated High-Risk Areas.

However, the demand for privately contracted armed security personnel (PCASP) has precipitated a new set of legal and logistical concerns. Even today, flag States vary as to whether they permit armed guards on their vessels. This predicament eventually leads to the birth of “Floating Armouries”.

According to the guidelines provided by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, they are “vessels that have the facility to store small arms, ammunition and security-related equipment” and usually operate beyond the territorial sea of any coastal States. The FA may have the facilities to accommodate privately contracted armed security personnel for periods of time between tasks. FAs with accommodation are commonly referred to as ‘ Floatels’.

Floating Armouries are an accepted business although no formal approval by IMO. There’s only a best practices code, not an approval. The practice of floating armouries is most popular in the Red sea because countries like Djibouti and Sudan allow these arsenals in their EEZs. In the Indian Ocean region, they take cover  in the Maldivian EEZ and the Arabian Sea.

The stigma and concern around the concept is a fairly simple one. Carrying arms is accompanied by complex legalities and even high costs. The holding and issuing of weapons, ammunition and military equipment are usually moderated strictly by state-run organizations. Ideally, the handling of arsenals of that magnitude should be in the hands of the naval forces of the respective states. However, today the controlling of these arsenals have fallen into the hands of private security organizations which has led to a lack of transparency and oversight. Moreover, the active use of old ships to store large caches of weapons has sparked fears that they may be vulnerable to the very malefactors that they are intended to guard against – pirates.

In the Indian Ocean region concern was sparked by India, after two disturbing incidents near its coastline, both of which involved States or private companies hiring out personnel for anti-piracy operations. India was forced to charge the mariners of MV Enrica Lexie with murder and chose to hold their custody in India for several years.

According to UN guidelines, the “flag state” has complete jurisdiction and autonomy regarding the weapons holds in concern. If we are to accommodate and acknowledge the presence of the arsenal afloat, it needs to be done so by proper legal channelling and has to be gazetted accordingly. In Sri Lanka, they need to obtain seaworthy certification, DGMS (Director General Merchant Shipping) approval.

The issue remains as this has not been addressed properly.

It needs to be seen in perspective because if these companies are in fact powerful as evident above if these arsenals are monopolized by any entity or country, there is a risk of a huge upsurge in the costs of marine security. Simply put, there will be many packages that include different levels of security provided which in turn will create a difference in standards that will ultimately lead to some shipments of countries and regions being better equipped to protect than others. There will no longer be a fair and level playing field.

To Sri Lanka, this causes major concern and alarm given her history of civil war and the quite recent Easter Sunday Attacks as unregulated and unaccounted vessels with a large stockpile of arms on board form a very threatening picture. Especially without being DIRECTLY, monitored and managed by a state-run organization.

Concerning all the facts, we can come to an easy conclusion that the stockpiling of arms without proper jurisdiction, especially in Sri Lankan waters is indeed an offence. The existence of floating arsenals has only morphed into another source of anxiety, created in the interest of privatized organizations.

The issue here is the fact that Sri Lanka has gotten Floating Armouries and OBST (On Board Security Team) operations completely mixed up. They are considered to be two separate units when in fact Floating Armouries are just another component of OBST operations.

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