We are all well aware that piracy remains a serious issue for the shipping industry, and of late there have been signs of an increased confidence on the part of the pirates. On 20 August 2011, for example, the M/T “FAIRCHEM BOGEY” was hijacked whilst anchored in what was considered to be a secure outer harbour area off Oman. Notably, the vessel had armed guards stationed on board during its transit of the Gulf of Aden, who disembarked when the vessel reached Oman.

In the wake of this incident, there were calls for port authorities to publish guidance dealing with the deployment of armed guards on board vessels. The IMO, keen to be seen to be responding to issues of current concern for the industry, issued Interim Recommendations for Port and Coastal States regarding the use of armed guards on 16 September 2011. The Recommendations can be found in IMO Circular MSC.1/Circ.1408, the full text of which is available on the IMO website.

The Recommendations reflect the need of Flag States, shipping companies and private security companies to know whether and under what conditions armed guards make embark and disembark vessels, and whether the carriage of armed guards and their weapons is allowed in the first place. In order to meet this need, the IMO recommends that coastal states have in place policies which facilitate the movement of both armed guards and the firearms and equipment which they carry.

Why were these Recommendations necessary?

In our experience, an increasing number of vessel owners are choosing to use armed guards as a way of deterring pirates, and as a way of defending their vessels should they be attacked. The IMO’s position reflects that of the industry as a whole: that while the use of armed guards may not be specifically endorsed, if owners are choosing to use them then their use must be regulated as much as possible.

In the current circumstances, it is entirely sensible for port and coastal states to facilitate owners’ use of armed guards. This may involve, for example, implementing clear policies as regards notification and identification of armed guards and their weaponry, and requirements regarding the safe storage of fire arms. Such policies will enable port business to continue to run as smoothly as possible.

The IMO has not given any guidance as to precisely what the policies should entail, as this will differ depending on the workings of a particular port and the law of the state in which it is located. It therefore remains to be seen exactly how the IMO’s recommendations will be implemented in practice.