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Armament on the High Seas

By Liza Kane-Hartnett

Last month, Sri Lanka announced that it had terminated its agreement with the private security firm Avant Garde to operate the country’s increasingly scandalous ‘floating armories.’ The term refers to vessels stationed at sea that house weapons and personnel, which proliferated as a reaction to Somali piracy and the use of armed guards to protect those traveling in the High Risk Area (HRA).

As security measures escalated over the last five years to stave off pirate attacks and hijackings, ships traveling in the HRA with armed guards faced challenges navigating various regulatory regimes regarding their ability to bring weapons into the sovereign jurisdiction and ports of differing countries. The predicament led to the development of floating armories as pickup and drop-off points for weapons and guards alike. Until the HRA was reduced in size in October 2015, Sri Lanka’s optimal location adjacent to the region emerged as a convenient depository for the security needs of vessels transiting the east-west route connecting Asia to the Western Indian Ocean and high-traffic gulfs of the Middle East.

Sri Lanka’s recent decision to end their contract with Avant Garde was the result of the ongoing controversy that has embroiled the government and prompted the resignation of their law and order minister. Investigations concerning the legality of Sri Lanka’s floating armories and corruption within the current administration have intensified since these armory vessels were found to be carrying illegal weapons within India’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Subsequently, operations were transferred to the Sri Lankan navy and floating armories have been outright banned within Sri Lankan jurisdiction. But such fallout only represents just the tip of the armament iceberg when exploring the security issues surrounding the judicial void in which floating armories operate.

While the Sri Lanka-Avant Garde scandal is the most recent and public issue surrounding floating armories, the industry and its larger parent industrial sector, known as private maritime security companies (PMSC), have been a source of controversy for years. Privately contracted armed guards made headlines for killing two Indian fishermen in February 2012 and are thought to have shot at multiple Somali fishermen after mistaking them for pirates, though there are not official reports of these claims.

The unregulated nature of the oceanic armament industry raises questions about the number of floating armories operating globally as well as both the nature and number of the weapons they possess. One expert estimates that there are approximately half a million weapons currently in circulation among floating armories stemming from British, Russian, Chinese and other providers. A British report stated that the U.K. authorized 181,708 individual weapons for PMSCs between April 2012 and September 2013—it is believed that the Russians have provided just as many if not more. This proliferation of high-powered weaponry on the high seas, an area without international oversight, is a major security concern. However, it is only a symptom of the general lack of regulation within the PMSC industry.

PMSCs have been hailed as an invaluable asset to the international fight against Somali piracy. Costing $683.6 million in 2014, PMSCs in the Western Indian Ocean fuel a large and powerful economy with minimal oversight. Floating armories have no regulation beyond that implemented by their controlling firms and, nominally, the flag state of the protected vessel upon which the guards travel. PMSCs can choose to submit themselves for certification by SAMI (the Security Association for the Maritime Industry), a global membership organization for the maritime security industry. However, due to budgetary constraints and its position within the industry, SAMI certification is perceived to be purchased by security firms rather than earned, undermining the entire regulatory process of both PMSCs and the floating armories that they utilize. A security dilemma in their own right, the floating armories operated by PMSCs are “just a symptom of a larger issue: the wild-west nature of the high seas,” as they operate “just beyond everyone’s jurisdiction,” explains Michael Frodl, a maritime security expert, attorney, and owner of C-LEVEL risk consultancy.

By leaving oversight beyond the purview of any individual state or international body, it creates a legal gray area in which illicit activity can thrive. Frodl argues that this absence of a legal framework facilitates and accelerates criminal activities as seen in the Sri Lanka case: “It’s a Darwinian ladder of the worsening of the problem. It’s almost inevitable the move will proceed from a-legal, to extra-legal, to flat-out illegal, and then to organized crime, and ultimately, state-sponsored organized crime. That’s what happened in the case of the floating armories fun by the Sri Lankan firm.”

To ensure that similar circumstances to the Sri Lanka case are not repeated and to improve overall security in the industry, an effective international legal and regulatory system must be established. Without the implementation of a strong legal framework, Frodl warns “everything that they [coastal state authorities] try to prosecute in their country is going to wind up based out in the ocean, just beyond their reach, just like the so-called dark web.”

While the magnitude of the initial piracy crisis provided justification for the use of PMSCs and floating armories absent of a comprehensive framework for its legality and oversight, the current downturn provides an opportunity to bring the industry within the rule of law. And though it is important to eliminate the gray space in which floating armories and PMSC’s operate, Frodl stresses, “don’t mistake the symptom for the problem.” In other words, broader regulation for the open ocean is necessary to reform floating armories and other a-legal operations.

To effectively and permanently address the freewheeling nature of the high seas and the legality of floating armories, a new and comprehensive framework is needed that recognizes the ease in which the frequency of illicit activities on the high seas occurs and aims to bring this last frontier of the global commons under international oversight. While such a framework could provide needed structure to the maritime security sector, it is important to recognize the complexities of high seas regulation. The high seas have long been viewed as a lawless space and massive resources will be required to bring it within the purview of the international community. Overlapping and disparate interests such as security, fisheries, oil exploration, and state sovereignty must all be considered in a comprehensive strategy for the management of the high seas. A good start may be strengthening the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) to reflect the modern and evolving nature of the ocean in global affairs and illicit enterprises since its establishment in 1982.

Although comprehensive regulatory and legal frameworks are necessary, they are far from both establishment and implementation. International bodies such as the U.N. and IMO have so far been hesitant to address the issues of PMSCs and floating armories, instead treating them as a necessary evil to combat piracy. Yet as sensitive as it is to regulate an industry that provides even tacit protection against crime, this does not mean that PMSCs and their floating armories can be allowed to continue operating without any negligible legal boundaries, as they do currently.

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Liza Kane-Hartnett is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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