Privatising the fight against piracy
The past decade has seen significant changes take place within the international system. The changing nature and proliferation of new threats on international security has called into question the adequacies of traditional measures used to meet them. This changing security landscape has opened up opportunities for new actors, with the private sector increasing both its presence and influence within the security framework.
The private military industry is growing, providing not only support and training but also armed combat and security services around the globe. Private security companies (PSCs) have emerged as viable actors in a world bereft with asymmetric conflicts, porous borders and an increasingly blurry understanding of state sovereignty.
While their history is rich, PSCs are probably most known for their association with, and involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Much has been written about the United States’ use of security contractors as well as the high profile incidents that have been associated with them. The Abu Ghraib abuses and the now infamous Blackwater security company, served to bring attention to the role of PSCs in conflicts but also the difficulties of holding such private actors accountable. Furthermore, the deployment of such actors directly challenged the state-centric model of security that has dominated international relations for decade. Nevertheless, the presence of PSCs is by no means limited to these two conflicts, as the move towards the private sector has become increasingly prominent in response to other contemporary threats; with piracy being one of them.
The dramatic rise of pirate activity off the coast of Somalia between 2008 and 2011 forced the international community to address a threat that had grown to have global consequences. This ultimately culminated in an unprecedented multinational response that tackled the problem head on, resulting in the disintegration of the pirate enterprise that had established itself in the region. However, parallel to this action was the adoption of Best Management Practices (BMP) by the shipping industry navigating in the area. Central here was the use of armed guards on board vessels tasked with protecting the civilians and cargo being transported. These guards were not mandated or provided by any state but were (and continue to be) hired in from, you guessed it, PSCs. The market for on board security personnel has skyrocketed and one might wonder why there is such a high demand. Well the answer is simple. The presence of an armed and trained team on board a vessel has proven to be the biggest deterrent to potential pirate attacks.
The actions taken to tackle the scourge of piracy off the coast of Somalia have been universally heralded, due in large part to the massive drop in pirate attacks in the region. Despite this, high sea larceny continues to plague other parts of the world, most significantly West Africa. The Gulf of Guinea has over the past years developed into one of the worlds most active and prone pirate hotspots, prompting calls to employ the same strategies used to neutralize piracy on the East coast. This has however been met with several complications. The nature of the piracy threat on the East coast of Africa is significantly different from that which is prevalent off the coast of Nigeria. The pirates operating in the Gulf of Guinea are significantly more violent than those operating in other regions. This is due in large part to the aims of these pirates, as contrary to Somali pirates, West African hijackings are conducted, not with the aim of taking hostages and demanding ransoms, but to steal valuable cargo such as oil and petroleum. As such, the crews of these vessels hold no value for the pirates and are therefore not protected to the same extent as on the East coast. Furthermore, West African pirates are usually heavily armed and often times better equipped than the naval forces tasked with protecting the merchant vessels. Shootouts between pirates and on-board security forces are therefore increasingly common, which accounts for the multiple casualties recorded in the region.
However, probably the main hinder to achieving the same results observed off the coast of Somalia is the distinctive operating environment present in the region. Because Somalia has for years been without a functional central government able to administrate over the whole country, its claims of state sovereignty have been challenged. The Somali state has been unwilling or unable to combat the piracy threat, both on and offshore, which has necessitated a response by the international community. This failed state moniker has allowed for an increased presence and involvement of international actors, who are not restricted in the same way. However, the fact that the countries affected by piracy in West Africa have functioning governments and the fact that the vast majority of pirate attacks occurs within territorial waters, has limited the extent to which international naval forces can operate. As such, the same response that took place off the shore of Somalia is unlikely to be replicated, which leaves local naval forces to bear the brunt of anti-piracy operations.
However, still navigating this legal quagmire are PSCs, who, while limited, are still being relied on to provide security for vessels in the region. The states around the Gulf of Guinea have been reluctant to fully turn towards the private sector, compromising instead by developing hybrid partnerships between local state actors and PSCs. Hundreds of privately contracted security vessels are currently in operation in the Gulf of Guinea and while their presence provides welcome relief for local naval forces, questions of accountability and compliance are still left unanswered. Frameworks tasked with regulating PSCs have not been able to keep up with their increased demand, which has resulted in (at least in West Africa) these same companies operating under their own rules of engagement. Despite these shortcomings, providing private security is too lucrative of an enterprise to give up and will likely continue to thrive in pirate hotspots. However, to expect the same results in West Africa as we have seen off the shore of Somali may be too optimistic. Considering West African pirates propensity for violence and their inclination to engage with armed on-board security, the presence of PSCs on vessels may not even provide the necessary deterrent to dissuade pirates operating in the region.