Piracy and armed robbery against ships


Piracy is a worldwide issue, but the deteriorating security situation in the seas off Somalia, the Gulf of Aden and the wider Western Indian Ocean between 2005 and 2012 and in the increasing number of attacks in the Gulf of Guinea are a major problem.

The depth of concern for the problem internationally is amply demonstrated by the levels of co-operation and coordination among naval and other forces from several countries that have assembled in the west Indian Ocean region and the Gulf of Aden to escort ships carrying humanitarian aid to Somalia and to protect vulnerable shipping. Notwithstanding this unprecedented effort, the vast sea area in which the pirates now operate makes it difficult to patrol and monitor effectively, particularly with the limited resources available.  More resources, in the form of naval vessels and aircraft, are needed and at every opportunity the IMO encourages Member Governments to make greater efforts to provide the additional naval, aerial surveillance and other resources needed through every means possible.
While there can be no doubt that the eventual solution lies in restoring effective governance in Somalia, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has, in the meantime, taken a leadership role in coordinating efforts to alleviate the problem from the maritime perspective.
Facilitating discussions between industry, member states, security forces, and other UN agencies with an interest in piracy and other maritime-security issues is a key element of the work of the Organization, as is the development of both mandatory instruments and guidance. IMO works to effect solutions in consultation with representatives of Governments, through the London diplomatic community; with other UN organizations (the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the World Food Programme); naval and military personnel; the shipping industry; seafarers and other concerned entities and individuals.


The following definition of piracy is contained in article 101 of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS):

“Piracy consists of any of the following acts:


(a) any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft, and directed:
on the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship
or aircraft;
  (ii) against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State;
any act of voluntary participation in the operation of a ship or of an aircraft with knowledge of facts
making it a pirate ship or aircraft;
(c) any act inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described in sub-paragraph (a) or (b).”

Initiatives to counter piracy and armed robbery at sea

IMO is implementing an anti-piracy project, a long-term project which began in 1998. Phase one consisted of a number of regional seminars and workshops attended by Government representatives from countries in piracy-infested areas of the world; while phase two consisted of a number of evaluation and assessment missions to different regions. IMO's aim has been to foster the development of regional agreements on implementation of counter piracy measures.

Regional cooperation among States has an important role to play in solving the problem of piracy and armed robbery against ships, as evidenced by the success of the regional anti-piracy operation in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. The Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against ships in Asia (RECAAP), which was concluded in November 2004 by 16 countries in Asia, and includes the RECAAP Information Sharing Centre (ISC) for facilitating the sharing of piracy-related information, is a good example of successful regional cooperation which IMO seeks to replicate elsewhere.
Somalia-based piracy

In January 2009, an important regional agreement was adopted in Djibouti by States in the region, at a high-level meeting convened by IMO. The Djibouti Code of Conduct concerning the Repression of Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in the Western Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden recognizes the extent of the problem of piracy and armed robbery against ships in the region and, in it, the signatories declare their intention to co operate to the fullest possible extent, and in a manner consistent with international law, in the repression of piracy and armed robbery against ships.

The signatories commit themselves towards sharing and reporting relevant information through a system of national focal points and information centres; interdicting ships suspected of engaging in acts of piracy or armed robbery against ships; ensuring that persons committing or attempting to commit acts of piracy or armed robbery against ships are apprehended and prosecuted; and facilitating proper care, treatment, and repatriation for seafarers, fishermen, other shipboard personnel and passengers subject to acts of piracy or armed robbery against ships, particularly those who have been subjected to violence.


West Africa
IMO and the Maritime Organization of West and Central Africa (MOWCA) developed a Memorandum of Understanding in July 2008 to establish a sub-regional integrated coastguard network in West and Central Africa and provide the framework of cooperation and guidance for the implementation of the Network. The MoU which was been signed by 15 coastal States in the region aims to initiate joint efforts in the domain of maritime activities to protect human life, enforce laws and improve the safety and protection of the environment.
A Code of Conduct was adopted formally by the Head of State meeting in Cameroon's capital Yaoundé on 25 June 2013 and was signed by ministerial level representatives of 22 States immediately afterwards. The Code builds on the existing Memorandum of Understanding on the integrated coastguard function network in west and central Africa and incorporates a number of elements of the Djibouti Code of Conduct, the regional counter-piracy agreement for East African States but is much wider in scope as it addresses a range of illicit activities at sea including illegal fishing, drug smuggling and piracy.


IMO Guidance and reports

To assist in anti-piracy measures, IMO issues reports on piracy and armed robbery against ships submitted by Member Governments and international organizations. The reports, which include names and descriptions of ships attacked, position and time of attack, consequences to the crew, ship or cargo and actions taken by the crew and coastal authorities, are now circulated monthly, with annual summaries.

The IMO action plan places an emphasis on improving IMO guidelines to Administrations and seafarers and promoting compliance with recommended preventive, evasive and defensive measures. The IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) continues to stress the importance of self-protection as a deterrent to successful piracy attacks. 

The MSC adopted a resolution in May 2011 on the Implementation of Best Management Practice guidance, which recognizes the urgent need for merchant shipping to take every possible measure to protect itself from pirate attack and that effective self-protection is the best defence.  The resolution strongly urges all those concerned to take action to ensure that, as a minimum, ships' masters receive updated information before and during sailing through the defined High Risk Area ships register with the Maritime Security Centre Horn of Africa (MSCHOA) and report to United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) Dubai, and that ships effectively implement all recommended preventive, evasive and defensive measures.

The MSC also agreed Guidelines to assist in the investigation of the crimes of piracy and armed robbery against ships, which are intended to be used in conjunction with the existing IMO-developed Code of Practice for the Investigation of the Crimes of Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships, to assist investigators to collect evidence in support of prosecutions.
Advice and Guidance to Governments, shipowners and ship operators, shipmasters and crews on preventing and suppressing acts of piracy and armed robbery against ships
It is the responsibility of  the coastal State/port State to develop action plans detailing how to prevent  acts of piracy or armed robbery against ships.
To assist governments , shipowners and ship operators, shipmasters and crews in preventing of these acts the IMO have produced the following recommendations and guidance:
  • Recommendations to Governments for preventing and suppressing piracy and armed robbery against ships MSC.1/Circ.1333
  • Guidance to shipowners and ship operators, shipmasters and crews on preventing and suppressing acts of piracy and armed robbery against ships MSC.1/Circ.1334
Given the recognition of the growing use of privately contracted armed security personnel (PCASP), the MSC also approved recommendations and guidance on the use of PCASP on board ships in the High Risk Area. This guidance was further developed by the Facilitation Committee, and by a special MSC Intersessional Working Group, which produced a suite of guidance for flag States, for port and coastal States, and for ship-owners, ship operators, and shipmasters on the subject.


Reports on Piracy and Armed Robbery



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