Shipping companies and Western governments have been struggling with the problem of piracy off the Horn of Africa for years. It's becoming increasingly clear that the only really effective solution involves having private security forces on board who are prepared to repel attacks with firearms if necessary -- as a recent viral Internet video of guards apparently shooting Somali pirates graphically illustrates.
For ships flying the German flag, such operations are currently a legal gray area. The use of armed private security guards is neither clearly prohibited nor explicitly allowed. But that could soon change. The German Economics Ministry is currently working on draft legislation that would establish a certification process for security companies, allowing them to place guards on ships.
According to the draft, which SPIEGEL ONLINE has seen, the German government considers the fight against piracy to be an "important task" that needs to be conducted with a "range" of measures. "An important addition to these measures may be the contracting of security companies," the draft reads. "So far, no ship with armed security forces on board has been successfully hijacked."
The government wants to change German commercial law so that it also covers the use of security guards on ships. According to the draft, the approval of security companies would be carried out by the Federal Office of Economics and Export Control, a federal authority which is subordinate to the Economics Ministry, with support from the Federal Police.
The draft law stipulates that security companies should have "sufficient maritime knowledge" and that "only qualified and reliable security forces" should be used so as to reduce the risk of an escalation of violence.
According to the German Shipowners' Association (VDR), which supports the plans, the use of machine guns will not be allowed. Security guards will only be able to use those weapons covered by the German gun license, such as semi-automatic guns and rifles. The draft law foresees the Federal Office of Economics and Export Control publishing a regularly updated list of approved security companies on its website.
The draft law -- and the fact that it is backed by German shipowners -- presents a paradigm shift in Germany's approach to tackling piracy. Just one-and-a-half years ago, VDR remained opposed to the use of private security forces. At the time, shipowners argued that the German state was responsible for protecting German shipping. The government stressed, however, that it did not have enough soldiers to protect ships outside the scope of the European Union's Operation Atalanta anti-piracy mission, which the EU recently decided to expand so as to allow attacks on pirate infrastructure along on the coast.
"The navy can only monitor a limited area, while the pirates have a great deal of flexibility in terms of where they act," says VDR head Max Johns, explaining that it is simply not possible to deploy enough navy ships to protect all commercial vessels.
Shipowners take a pragmatic view of the situation. "It has become clear that the state is not in a position to do the job," says Johns. "There is therefore no point in clinging to that demand, so we now support the second-best approach."
Johns also explains that certain anti-piracy measures -- such as safe rooms, or so-called "citadels," in which the crew can take refuge on ships -- previously seen as alternatives to armed protection have proven less effective than had been hoped. "There is evidence that safe rooms can, under certain circumstances, actually make the situation even more dangerous for the crew -- for example, if pirates use explosives to try to gain entry," says Johns. His conclusion is clear: "We simply need private forces."
Cheaper to Hire Guards
Financial considerations also play a role. Many insurance companies require shipowners to pay exorbitant surcharges on premiums if their vessels pass through pirate territory, or they refuse to even insure the ships unless they have armed security personnel on board. In this case, hiring armed guards can pay off. According to Johns, a shipowner can expect to pay between $10,000 and $20,000 (7,600 to 15,200) per day for the use of four or five guards. In general, the security forces will be on board for between three and seven days, depending on the route.
Shipping companies in other countries are already making frequent use of private security firms, most of which are based in the United States and Britain. So far, German shipowners have refrained from using private guards because of the legal uncertainty -- at least officially.
"It's fine provided nothing happens," says Johns. But if, for example, someone is killed or injured, then the captain could find himself in a difficult situation. "When one is sailing through these waters, one always has one foot in prison," he says.
Some German shipowners resort to a common trick to get around the country's laws: They register their vessels under a different flag so that they are covered by the laws of another country. "The planned certification should now free shipowners -- and captains, in particular -- from this dilemma and provide greater legal certainty," says Johns.
Piracy off the coast of Somalia has become an increasing problem in recent years. One of the most important international shipping channels passes through the region, which is considered the most dangerous area of sea in the world. Of the 439 attacks reported to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) in 2011, 237 attacks took place off Somalia, representing over 50 percent of the global total.