UK Politics

Clarify 'lethal force' piracy defence rules, say MPs

Royal Marines searching a whaler boat about 350 nautical miles from the Somali coast which was suspected of piracy
Image caption Naval forces have had some success in confronting pirates in international waters

Guidelines on when British ships can use "lethal force" against Somali pirates must be clarified, MPs say.

Vessels sailing under UK flags have been authorised to protect themselves by employing armed guards after a spate of attacks on international ships and kidnappings in the Indian Ocean.

But the foreign affairs select committee said ministers must spell out "what is permissible and what is not".

It has also urged the government to review its kidnap response procedures.

This followed criticism from Paul and Rachel Chandler, held hostage by Somali pirates for 13 months, about the Foreign Office's support for their family during their ordeal.

The Security Association for the Maritime Industry (Sami) - which represents 100 firms who provide armed guards for shipping - also called for clear guidance about when force can be used.

Following the committee's report, Sami founder Peter Cook said: "The bold decision to allow vessels to use armed guards was just the start. Now the authorities must set about the task of ensuring the systems and rules for the use of force which they employ are appropriate and adequate."

However, Peter Hinchcliffe, the Secretary General of the International Chamber of Shipping, said the priority should be tackling piracy itself.

He said a "robust international effort" was needed to "take the fight to the pirates, prevent them deploying from the Somali coast" and to make sure that every pirate who is arrested is taken to court.

Dangerous waters

The Foreign Office said it would respond to the committee's views when it had studied them in depth.

But Foreign Secretary William Hague said a UK-chaired conference on Somalia next month would try to "chart a way forward" for the country's political direction, humanitarian efforts and dealing with piracy.

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Media captionPaul and Rachel Chandler were held captive by Somali pirates

Prime Minister David Cameron announced in October that ships sailing under a British flag would be able to carry armed guards to protect them from pirates - under licence from the Home Office - but only while passing through dangerous waters, such as the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

This marked a change in policy for the UK which had previously discouraged such a move.

The committee welcomed the government's new approach, arguing it was "unacceptable" that a large section of the Indian Ocean had become too dangerous for commercial shipping companies and a virtual "no-go" area for smaller vessels.

"There is a clear need to take decisive action," committee chairman, Conservative MP Richard Ottaway, said.

"Naval forces have had some success but they cannot hope to police such a large area. Ship owners must take responsibility for their own protection and the government must let them do so."

'Stain on world'

But Mr Ottaway added: "The government's guidance on the use of force, particularly lethal force, is very limited and there is little to help a ship's master make a judgement on where force can be used.

"The question anyone would ask is that if a private armed guard on board a UK-flagged vessel sees an armed skiff approaching at high speed, can the guard open fire? The government must provide clearer direction on what is permissible and what is not."

Image caption Paul and Rachel Chandler were freed after more than a year in captivity

In guidance published last month, ministers stipulated that armed guards would only be permitted if shipping firms followed best practice guidelines on security - including completing a risk assessment and "counter-piracy plan" - and if their presence was deemed likely to "reduce the risk" to the lives of those on board.

More than 90% of global hijackings in 2010 took place off the coast of Somalia, a situation which the prime minister has described as a "stain on the world".

Under United Nations conventions, every ship is subject to the jurisdiction of the country whose flag it carries.

It is thought many British-registered ships already carry armed guards because they feel they have no alternative and, according to the government, no ship carrying armed security has yet been hijacked.

Foreign Office officials believe about half of the 200 vessels flying the red ensign - the British merchant navy flag - which regularly sail close to Somalia were likely apply for the authority to have armed guards.

In their report, the MPs also said the government must reconsider how it communicated with relatives of kidnap victims in light of the Chandlers' criticism.

The couple, freed last September after being taken hostage while sailing from the Seychelles towards Tanzania, said the assistance offered to their relatives had been "distressingly inadequate".

They were released after a ransom of up to £620,000 was reportedly paid.

'Clear support'

The committee said it was concerned that "so little was known" what happened to ransom money paid in Somali piracy cases, which totalled £190m over the last four years.

The UK government had been "disappointingly slow" to take action on the trail of money stemming from ransom payments, given the information available from British companies.

The committee stressed the solution to the problem lay in stabilising Somali society - blighted by years of civil war and famine - providing alternative sources of income and ending impunity for piracy crimes.

Foreign Secretary William Hague said: "Britain will continue to work with the UN, African Union, regional partners and the Somali people to build a stable Somalia and through our work with the Department For International Development to build sustainable alternative livelihoods for coastal communities in Somalia."

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