SECURITY ISSUE

India's maritime administration may make ‘flag-state endorsement' mandatory for foreign merchant ships entering Indian waters with armed security guards on board. The idea is to make the Government of the country in which the ship is registered (flag-state) also responsible for any action on the part of the armed guards deployed on the vessel.

The move apparently follows the killing of two fishermen off the Kerala coast last week when security guards on an Italian ship, opened fire, reportedly mistaking them for pirates.

Currently, flag-states give a general approval for shipping companies to engage private security guards. The contract is between the ship owners and the security agency which provides the armed men. With rising incidents of attacks on cargo ships by Somali pirates, many countries, including India and Italy, have allowed their merchant ships to have armed guards on board. Ships have to follow the policy (on deployment of guards) of the country in which they are registered. The policy is based on the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) guidelines.

Problems can arise when the ship is owned, managed and operated by people of different nationalities. Typically, a ship may be registered in one country and its owner based in another. Further, the private security agency that provides the guards could be operating from a third country. Adding to this, there is every possibility of the security men belonging to different nationalities. Given such complexities, Government officials here said it needs to be made mandatory that flag states should shoulder the responsibility of ensuring that any liability arising out of reckless acts by armed men on board are honoured.

In the incident involving the Italian ship Enrica Lexie off the Kerala coast, the security guards fired on the fishing boat when it came within 100 metres, as they mistook it for a pirate vessel.

A senior maritime official said that, according to normal procedures, the security guards on vessels are expected to fire warning shots first and also try to establish contact with any other nearby vessels or anti-piracy centres. ‘Shoot to kill' should only be the last resort, when men from the suspected boat try to climb onto the ship.

According to the officer, fishermen, after casting their nets, normally move around it to prevent any incoming ship from damaging their nets. By nature, fishermen are aggressive and do not like any intrusion. If any ship comes close to them they shout and wave for the vessel to steer away, he said. The Director-General of Shipping had ordered an enquiry into the incident.

kurup@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on February 19, 2012)
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