The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee Report on “Piracy off the coast of Somalia”, published today, sets out the findings of the Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) enquiry into the efforts of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the UK Government to combat increasing levels of piracy off the coast of Somalia.
As part of their enquiry, the FAC invited Ince & Co partner Stephen Askins, who has provided legal advice to the owners and underwriters of a number of vessels hijacked by pirates, to appear before the Committee and provide evidence in connection with some of the legal issues that arise in dealing with the threat of piracy. Among other things, Stephen's input related to the (i) use of private armed security guards (PASGs) and the (ii) payment of ransoms.
(i) Use of PASGs
The report concludes that “the evidence in support of the use of armed guards is compelling” but that the “Government must provide clearer direction on what is permissible and what is not”. The FAC recommends that, following the Government’s recent announcement that PASGs would be permitted on UK-flagged vessels, clear and unambiguous guidance on the use of armed force should be issued and that this should include provisions that the use of force should be proportionate, necessary and graduated. The report also concludes that a national regulatory structure should be introduced so as to provide a level of quality assurance and ensure that an appropriate approach is followed in all UK-flagged vessels. In respect of the carriage and transfer of weapons by PASGs, the report recommends that agreement be reached with those coastal states through which weapons were likely to need to pass in order to support the use of PASGs.
The report expresses its concern regarding the growth of the payment of ransoms and the escalating costs of piracy to the maritime industry but concludes that, given the commercial realities and the lack of viable alternatives, the Government should address this through the recovery of ransoms and prosecutions rather than making it more difficult for companies to secure the safe release of their crew. In particular, the report concludes that the Government should not criminalise the payment of ransoms.
Stephen Askins commented: "We welcome this wide-ranging report and it would be great to see the UK government taking a lead in this area. A number of the proposed initiatives and recommendations are aimed at protecting commercial vessels and importantly the crews who so often bear the brunt of the piracy attacks. That must be a good thing."