While in Germany the rules on the use of private armed guards to fight pirates from German-flagged ships are still unclear (obviously due to a lacking agreement between the Ministry of Economics and the Ministry of the Interior), the United Kingdom has revised it rules on private security company on British ships. Foreign Office minister Henry Bellingham explained this yesterday:
Following the Government’s announcement last autumn that we would allow the use of privately contracted armed guards on board UK flagged vessels, the Committee looked carefully at the issue. As the Chairman of the Committee pointed out, the Department for Transport published before Christmas last year interim guidance for UK flagged vessels on the use of armed guards to defend against the threat of piracy in exceptional circumstances. The guidance included a section on the use of force in the case of an attack. Since then, we have revised the guidance on the rules on use of force.
The revision published this morning provides greater clarity on what UK law says on the use of force. As the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) pointed out, the starting point must be our current common and statute law, which is pretty clear about what one can and cannot do. Obviously, companies must seek independent legal advice as necessary when developing the rules on use of force.
In the revised rules we go into a lot more detail, making it clear, for example, that it is
“illegal to use force for retaliation or revenge.”
That might be perfectly obvious, but the guidance continues:
“If the threat ceases, the defences of self defence, defence of another…no longer apply”,
and if a private security detachment
“believes a threat is imminent, it is not necessary for them to wait for the aggressor to strike the first blow before using reasonable and proportionate force to defend themselves”.
Again, that is clear. It is part of a graduated response. Earlier today, I was talking to experts in the Department for Transport and the Ministry of Defence, and they believe that we have struck a much better balance. We make a lot more information available. For example, we make it clear that if
“armed guards sighted a pirate skiff”—
a skiff that might be equipped to undertake acts of piracy—
“but there was nothing to indicate that the skiff was actively undertaking an act of piracy, it would be illegal for armed guards to use force against them.”
However, that would not, of course, preclude firing warning shots. All the evidence is that the pirates are cowards. They value their lives—they are not suicide merchants—and the indications are that when warning shots are fired they scarper off pretty quickly.
We have made it clear, and I say again to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South that this is work in progress. The revised guidelines are an important step forward in response to his Committee’s work. We will listen to what people in the industry say about the revised guidelines, and we will obviously listen to what the Committee says, and if we need to make further amendments, my hon. Friend the Shipping Minister has made it clear that he will do so.
The key, from my point of view, is the sentence If a private security detachment “believes a threat is imminent, it is not necessary for them to wait for the aggressor to strike the first blow before using reasonable and proportionate force to defend themselves”. Might be hard to prove, however.