Fairplay published an interesting article (an excerpt is available here) about the International Maritime Organization’s ("IMO") "guidance" regarding the presence of armed guards on shipping vessels.

The IMO met at its offices in London last week and discussed the issue of protecting seafarers who are employed on vessels which are increasingly being targeted by pirates.  One of the issues discussed is the use of private armed guards.

Pirate - Terrorist - Cruise ShipFrom the cruise ship perspective, we have written about the dangerous current set of affairs where some cruise ships are sailing into Somali pirate infested waters where the few security guards had to use fake wooden rifles, deck chairs and water cannons to fight off pirates armed with rocket propelled grenades.  You can read about pirate attacks against cruise ships here:

Are Cruise Lines Taking Adequate Steps to Protect Passengers from Pirate Attacks?

Cruise Line Liability for Injuries to Passengers and Crew Members Caused by Pirate Attacks

Some cruise ships go as far as to install razor wire around the rails and position logs to be dropped on the pirates below if they run their skiffs up to the cruise ship.  You can see a photo of this spectacle here.    

The Fairplay article mentions that the IMO issued "guidance" on the use of armed guards on ships, but stresses that it is still not recommending them.  Instead it states that shipping companies should consider arming crewmembers or hiring private armed guards on board after conducting a risk assessment. 

The article also states that the IMO recommended shipping companies that all laws and regulations imposed by that flag state regarding the use of armed guard apply to their vessels. 

Of course, the problem is that most shipping companies and cruise lines register their vessels in countries which have weak or non-existent safety and security regulations.  Liberia for example has a large vessel registry.  Does it prohibit the arming of security guards on Liberian registered vessels?  How about Panama where Carnival registers their cruise ships?

If the flag states are silent about weapons on vessels, why not have a strongly worded "recommendation" from the IMO after it has conducted a comprehensive risk assessment of the dangers posed by pirates (as well as terrorists) to vessels?  A weakly worded "guidance" won’t accomplish anything. 

Just last week, the Associated Press published an interesting article entitled "Oil Tanker Terror Hijacks Easy, Attacks Complex" which explained how Osama Bin Laden was exploring ways to hijack a large super tanker filled with millions of gallons of oil or liquefied natural gas by imitating the tactics of Somali pirates who use small speedboat to overpower tanker crews in remote locations.

The risk to cruise passengers and crew is real, both from pirates and terrorists.  The IMO blew an opportunity to make a strong recommendation to arm the shipping community.  Instead, the vessels’ security will be left under the auspices of countries like Liberia.  Security guards will be left to fight the bad guys carrying AK-47’s with fake guns, deck chairs and water guns.