Liberty Maritime Corporation President and CEO, Philip J. Shapiro, asked Congress to provide the U.S. legal framework to allow for ship owners to arm crews or contract armed private security teams when necessary. In the interim, Shapiro asked for government security teams or naval escorts of all U.S.-flag vessels on high risk transits. Liberty Maritime owns the M/V Liberty Sun, a cargo ship recently attacked by pirates in the Gulf of Aden while delivering U.S. government food aid to several African countries, including Somalia.
“The Maersk Alabama incident constitutes a game changer,” Shapiro said in a hearing before the Senate Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety and Security Subcommittee. “We respectfully request that Congress consider clearing the obstacles that block ship owners from arming our vessels in self-defense to protect our crews when it is appropriate.”
In asking Congress to ease restrictions that currently prevent commercial vessels like the Liberty Sun and Maersk Alabama from carrying weapons, Shapiro noted that Liberty Maritime Corporation already adopts every measure recommended by international maritime organizations and required by the U.S. Coast Guard for deterring piracy, but that those measures are no longer adequate on their own.
While laws are changed, Shapiro called for U.S. government security teams or naval escorts of commercial ships subject to high risks. “Private industry cannot switch from a no-firearms regime to an armed protection regime overnight,” he added. “Our ships need protection now - not six or nine months from now.”
On April 14, the Liberty Sun was attacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia using rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons. The unarmed vessel had been on a mission to deliver 47,000 tons of U.S. food aid to East Africa, including Somalia. Upon being attacked, the ship immediately implemented the company’s security plan and executed a series of evasive maneuvers. The pirates did not succeed in boarding the vessel. The U.S.S. Bainbridge, which rescued Maersk Alabama Captain Richard Phillips only two days earlier, responded to the Liberty Sun’s call for help, with Captain Phillips in tow.
A statute enacted in 1819 makes it clear that U.S.-flag ships have the right to self-defense, but modern U.S. laws effectively prevent ship owners from arming their crews or hiring armed security teams. Increased pirate activity in the waters off the coast of Somalia and direct threats made against American crews have elevated the risk to the safety of American ships and their crews.