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The Challenge of COVID-19 for Floating Armories

security vessel
On-deck living arrangements aboard an overcrowded floating armory (provided by an anonymous guard / Lydelle Joubert)

By Lydelle Joubert 09-08-2020 02:14:57

1.2 million seafarers on more than 55,000 ships form the backbone of the global economy. The outbreak of COVID-19 threatened these supply lines and affected crew serving these ships. It is estimated that between 400,000 and 600,000 seafarers are affected by crew changes worldwide, this includes crew trapped onboard vessels and those unable to earn wages as they cannot embark vessels. Some of the crew on vessels have been on vessels for well over a year.

Limitations to port access, flights and immigration are at the center of the problem. Often when crew can disembark at a port, visa arrangements might not be available. Flights could also be restricted or not be available at the port location or the end location and are often canceled at the last moment.

This problem is compounded in the Red Sea, the Western Indian Ocean, and the Gulf of Oman, where Private Armed Security Teams (PASTs) are stuck on floating armories (FAs) with some of the armories at double their intended capacity.  Living conditions onboard some armories are deteriorating and safety standards are compromised in the process. The current situation also has security implications due to increased stress levels onboard and the compensation problems that some guards are experiencing.

An incident indicative of the stress armed guards are currently under occurred on July 21, 2020 when the bulker MV Jaeger embarked a PAST in the Indian Ocean. One of the three guards refused to surrender his weapon to the master as protocol dictated. He took control of the ship and diverted the vessel from its course. The guard also discharged his weapon onboard. All these actions were the result of a compensation dispute with the Private Maritime Security Company (PMSC) that employed him, as he claimed he had not been paid for five months. After three days, the security situation was resolved with the help of the ship’s owner, Eagle Bulk Shipping, and maritime security experts. No crew were harmed during the incident. The PAST disembarked at an FA in the Southern Red Sea.

This situation escalated further when the same guard, in an attempt to receive back pay, broke into the FA Golden Palm's armory a month later and took the crew hostage. The standoff has reportedly been resolved, but not after he discarded the weapons owned by his employers into the sea.

Private Armed Security Teams

By 2010, piracy off the coast of Somalia, the Red Sea and the Western Indian Ocean extended 1,000 nm from the Somalian coast and as far south as Madagascar. More than a thousand hostages were taken in that year and 49 vessels were hijacked. Although a few PASTs appeared on commercial vessels in 2009, more were noted in 2010 as flag state legislation changed to permit firearms onboard vessels. By 2011 it became a common practice. Attacks increased in 2011, but success rates dropped significantly with 40 percent fewer successful attacks.

The use of PASTs onboard vessels, combined with the intervention of foreign navies, the establishment of the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor, the promulgation of “Best Management Practices” (BMP), and the arrest and prosecution of pirates, were the measures that had the largest impact on countering piracy off the coast of Somalia, the Red Sea and the Western Indian Ocean. As it is impossible for foreign navies to cover all vessels in the area at all times, the most effective and ultimate responsibility for the security of the ship lies with the ship itself. PASTs on vessels provide immediate onboard security, which allows navies time to respond to attacks. However, due to national and international laws and regulations, merchant ships are unable to dock in most foreign ports with arms and ammunition onboard.

Floating Armories

To solve the problem of weapons onboard ships and PASTs embarking and disembarking with weapons, FAs or Vessel Based Armories (VBAs) were established. These armories function as stationary weapons and ammunition storage facilities in key locations in international waters. By the end of 2012 the use of FAs by PAST was common. At the end of 2018, four companies with 19 vessels were supporting 1,500-1,800 embarkations per month in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Oman, and the Western Indian Ocean. Today the same four companies are still operational.

The armories provide a variety of security services. PAST-owned weapons and security equipment can be stored onboard the FA. Flag state approval is mandatory for storage of weapons onboard. Accommodations for PASTs are provided as well as shuttle services between the armories and port, as well as transfer to and from their clients’ merchant ships. The average stay under normal circumstances is about seven days, but there had been incidents when PASTs remained onboard for more than 100 days in the past.

Regulations

Some FAs are professionally operated and adhere voluntarily to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and are willing to be regulated and welcome inspections of the facilities regarding the safe storage of weapons. There are however shortcomings in regulations governing FAs such as regulations regarding weapons storage, record keeping of weapons stored and transferred, and flag state registration - especially registration under Paris MoU black list flag states.

The lack of regulation is of special concern to the Indian Maritime Administration which called for regulations that will ensure that armories are registered to responsible flag states and that there should be some form of certification requirement and binding legal regime for floating armories.

Concerns around FAs have been discussed at meetings of the Maritime Safety Committee of the International Maritime Organization, the Contact Group for Piracy Off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS) and the United Nations Security Council.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has examined the issue and a draft summary of applicable law was discussed at the UNODC Global Maritime Crime Program’s Legal Conference in Colombo, Sri Lanka in June 2018. A UNODC “Summary of Laws Regulating Floating Armouries and their Operations” was published in August 2020.

While FAs are not directly addressed by any International regulations, several international and national laws and regulations apply to the vessel itself and the services provided, and the individuals involved. While coastal states have full powers over FAs in their territorial waters, this does not extend to the EEZ and International Waters. FAs will however normally transfer weapons at sea prior to entering port and will not enter territorial waters or port in their function as FA.

COVID-19 and Armories

COVID-19 produced some unexpected challenges for operations on FAs in the Red Sea and Western Indian Ocean. One such vessel is the Grey Palm, which was reportedly hosting more than double its intended capacity with a reported 180 people onboard in June 2020. Some of these guards have reportedly been on duty from nine months to a year, including Indian, Nepalese, European, Sri Lankan and Chinese nationals. They have also reported concerns about the amount of safety equipment onboard, including life jackets and lifeboats. It is reported that this is not the only FA currently experiencing such problems. A year ago, the Grey Palm’s sister ship, White Palm, had a fire onboard. Guards complained about overcrowding and insufficient emergency measures onboard at the time.

A part of the problem for PASTs and FAs is that compromises in quality appear to be occurring due to competitive pressure. The prevailing rates for PASTs have been driven too low as a result of fierce competition between PMSCs; this is a consequence of the number of companies in operation and a general demand by the shipping industry for cutting costs. The perception of a lower threat due to very low reported hijacking incidents in recent years also plays a factor in driving down prices.

Looking for solutions

The problems FAs are experiencing is a two-layer problem. First there is the general problem of lack of enforcement of regulations applicable to FAs, and secondly the immediate problem of COVID-19 and the problems it has created for crew changes.

As a FA is still a ship or merchant vessel, the primary legal tool to apply to FAs is the ISM Code, as it is mandatory for all vessels and it provides an international standard for the safe management and operations of ships. It is the flag state’s responsibility to ensure compliance with the ISM Code, and it is the shipowner or any party that has assumed such responsibility such as the manager or bareboat charterer of the vessel that has agreed to take over responsibilities imposed by the Code, such as establishing a safety management system for the ship. While the flag of the vessel might well be on the Paris MoU black list, the company could be registered in another state, which could enforce the Code.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Global Maritime Crime Programme “Summary of Laws Regulating Floating Armouries and their Operations” should give some clarity to which laws apply to FAs. The next step would be to establish international agreed regulations and guidance to govern armories and to eliminate the current ambiguities.

FA operators/companies should be registered in an FA registry which will include the current names and number of the FAs operating under the company, the FAs’ IMO numbers, flag state, owners as well as address of company, owners and insurer.  There should also be a regime where FAs can be inspected and audited, especially with regard to weapons they carry and security protocol with regard to the safe storage of these weapons and records of these weapons. Records should also be kept of PMSCs making use of the FA.

PMSCs need to hold the FAs they use to account, as the safety of their employees is their responsibility. Shipping companies should be willing to pay for decent services as the price war the PMSC industry is currently experiencing will lead to long term compromises in standards in PAST. This already had filtered down to FAs as well.

COVID-19 related solutions

A recent commitment of nations to allow crew changes for seafarers may relieve the problem of overcrowding and crew changes on FAs in the short term if it can be extended to more countries in their areas of operation. Thirteen leading maritime nations joined an initiative to recognize seafarers as essential workers and thereby enable crew changes by allowing more international flights and to allow exemptions in quarantine, visa and port controls and better coordination between these entities. The International Maritime Organization has also created a 12-step process of Protocols for states to facilitate crew rotations. While some countries are working towards finding a solution for this humanitarian crisis, others have increased restrictions on crew changes or reversed their commitment mainly due to non-adherence to protocols and abuses of test results and compliance by seafarers.  The situation remains in flux and notwithstanding the commitment of some countries not a lot of progress has been made yet.

At times it is possible for PASTs to be added to a commercial vessel's crew lists to disembark at port and where possible it could be a viable option. It is however usually more difficult to disembark from a shuttle boat servicing the FA.

A further problem is that most of these countries that agreed to better coordination and disembarkation are not in the operational area of the FAs. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two of the 13 nations that agreed to allow disembarkation could be possible alternatives for crew changes in the Red Sea and Gulf of Oman. Crew changes were indeed possible for several PASTs at the end of July at Suez, Dubai, and Sri Lanka, although port entry was difficult in Dubai. Saudi Arabia is not seen as a practical option for PAST crew changes at this stage. Traditionally it has been harder for PASTs to disembark in Saudi ports as the same rules do not apply for PASTs as for permanent marine crew.

To alleviate the problem of crew changes on FAs a collaborative approach between international organizations such as the IMO, UNODC and the CGPCS, flag states and regional countries are suggested and efforts should be made to ensure that measures to allow for crew changes in general should also be extended to PAST, as they are also essential workers in their area of operation. A commitment to allow crew changes by countries in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Oman, and the Western Indian Ocean should also be considered.

Armories should refrain from disembarking guards through ports if they are COVID-19 positive so port authorities will not shut down movement through ports. All FAs should have isolation cabins for COVID-19 patients. Approved COVID-19 tests before embarking and disembarking PASTs should be administered. Insisting that guards completing Covid-19 questionnaires 24 hours prior to disembarking on to and from FAs could be a good practice. COVID-19 preventative supplies such as thermometer cameras, Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs), disinfectants and blood test kits should be available onboard FAs.

Preventing further problems

With the absence of any other viable solution for logistical support for PASTs in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, FAs clearly have a role to play in anti-piracy solutions. As PASTs providing security on vessels are a unique class of role-player in the industry, the outbreak of COVID-19 has left them with unique problems. Around the world crews of vessels are facing repatriation problems. For PASTs it is compounded with the fact that they are not permanently deployed on a vessel and after their service is completed, they have nowhere to go, which leaves FAs with an impossible situation. Overcrowding of FAs and the tension onboard can and had already led to security and safety issues onboard. The question however is how and who will be able to solve this unique problem before we are faced with a serious security problem or human tragedy.

Lydelle Joubert joined Stable Seas in November 2018. She is an expert on global piracy and counter-piracy efforts and also contributes research on trafficking in illicit goods, transnational organized crime, African maritime security, and maritime domain awareness. Lydelle brings first-hand experience in the private security sector and the South African military. She holds an MA in International Relations, Honores in International Politics, and a BA in Political Sciences from the University of Pretoria, South Africa. 

The author would like to thank Mark Gray, the managing director MNG Maritime Ltd and Peter Cook, the director of PCA Maritime Ltd. for their assistance.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.