As a result of the rising levels of piracy in the Western Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden, particularly between 2005 and 2009, privately contracted armed security personnel (PCASP) have been employed for protection on board some merchant vessels operating in, or navigating through, that region.
The carriage of firearms on board merchant ships is a complex legal issue with IMO Member States taking diverse positions. Given the truly global nature of the shipping industry with many stakeholders, shipping benefits from harmonization of procedures, adoption of common minimum standards and clarity with respect to national legal regimes, which represents the core of the IMO's work.
Ships using PCASP are subject to many diverse legal regimes and at that time there were no agreed minimum performance standards for PCASP.
IMO's evolving position on PCASP
Over a number of years, the position of the IMO's Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) on this issue has evolved from:
.1 "the carrying and use of firearms for personal protection or protection of a ship is strongly discouraged" (MSC/Circ.623, annex paragraph 40 (June 18, 1993)); to
.2 "flag States should strongly discourage the carrying and use of firearms by seafarers for personal protection or for the protection of a ship" (MSC.1/Circ.1333, annex, paragraph 5 (June 26, 2009) – Updated and revoked by MSC.1-Circ.1333-Rev.1 in June 2015), to
.3 the current position of tacitly acknowledging that the deployment of armed security personnel on board ships has become an accepted industry and flag state practice in certain circumstances.
In May 2011, the MSC reaffirmed its position that it neither endorses nor condemns the use of armed personnel on board merchant ships and accepted that the carriage of armed personnel was an individual decision subject to the law of flag States. It was accepted that some shipowners use armed personnel on board ships, hence the need for the IMO to develop appropriate guidance, bearing in mind the need for extreme caution in matters relating to liability, jurisdiction, sovereignty, ships in transit and rights of innocent passage, among other issues.
While the Organization acknowledges that armed security personnel on board ships has become an accepted industry, their use should not be considered as an alternative to other protective measures, such as the Best Management Practices for Protection against Somalia based Piracy (BMP4), which was disseminated by IMO through MSC.1/Circ.1339, in September 2011.
IMO Interim Guidance and Recommendations on PCASP
Over the years the MSC has developed, adopted and updated (when necessary) interim guidance on the use of PCASP on board ships in the High Risk Area (HRA). This includes guidance for ship owners, ship operators and ship masters, through MSC.1/Circ.1405/Rev.2 (May 2012); and for flag States through MSC.1/Circ.1406/Rev.3 (June 2015).
In May 2012, the MSC through MSC.1/Circ.1443, developed interim guidance for private maritime security companies (PMSCs) providing PCASP on board ships in the HRA. This guidance incorporated a set of rules on the use of force, to complement the existing guidance, provide further assistance in policy development at the national level and to facilitate greater harmonization of policies at the international level related to the issue of private armed security on board ships.
Port and coastal states' PCASP requirements
In September 2011 the MSC adopted MSC.1/Circ.1408 on interim recommendations for port and coastal states regarding the use of privately contracted armed security personnel on board ships in the HRA. This MSC Circular contains further recommendations to Governments and, in particular, coastal and port States, on aspects related to the embarkation, disembarkation and carriage of privately contracted armed security personnel (PCASP) and of firearms and security-related equipment for use by PCASP.
Also in September 2011, the MSC adopted MSC-FAL.1/Circ.2 on the questionnaire on information on port and coastal states requirements related to PCASP on board ships, which was disseminated for IMO Member Governments, in their capacity of port and coastal States, to provide information pertaining to their individual requirements regarding the use of PCASP in their territorial waters.
The questionnaire in annex to the Circular was developed, in particular, to facilitate the Industry's compliance with the specified requirements when operating in, or navigating through, port and coastal States' territorial waters. Through it, IMO Member Governments and, in particular, those of the coastal States bordering the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea, Gulf of Aden and Red Sea, are encouraged to raise awareness of their relevant national legislation, policies and procedures relating to the carriage, embarkation and disembarkation of firearms and security-related equipment through their territory and the movement of PCASP.
The panel on the top right-hand side of this webpage, entitled Port and Coastal States PCASP requirements in accordance to MSC-FAL.1/Circ.2, contains the responses provided so far by some port and coastal States, on their national requirements regarding the use of PCASP in their territorial waters. IMO Member Governments that have not yet done so are encouraged to provide information to the Organization pertaining to their regulations with respect to PCASP. A formal reminder regarding this issue was disseminated by IMO through Circular Letter No.3366/Add.1 on 17 July 2014.
IMO and ISO joint work on PMSC standards
Having agreed that the MSC did not support self-certification or self-regulation by the private maritime security sector, the Committee further agreed that the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) would be best placed to develop standards on Private Maritime Security Companies (PMSC) with guidance from the IMO, and forwarded all relevant IMO guidance to ISO to serve as the base documents to be used in developing an appropriate ISO standard.
In November 2012, ISO published the publicly available specification ISO/PAS 28007:2012. ISO PAS 28007:2012 is a member of the ISO 28000 series, where ISO 28000:2007 is the certifiable security management systems standard and ISO 28003:2007 provides requirements for providing audits and certification to ISO 28000:2007. ISO/PAS 28007 sets out the guidance for applying ISO 28000 to PMSCs. In April 2015 ISO/PAS 28007:2012 was replaced by ISO/PAS 28007-1:2015, which is a full-fledged ISO standard.
PMSCs may implement ISO 28000 in order to demonstrate that they provide suitable PCASP services on board ships.
IMO and WCO cooperation on Customs requirements concerning the control of firearms on board ships
IMO has worked in collaboration with the World Customs Organization (WCO), on Customs issues relating to PCASP employed to protect ships transiting the HRA. As a result, in October 2011 the WCO disseminated a Questionnaire to all its Members, aimed at helping IMO Members Governments understand the Customs compliance requirements in relation to PCASP.
The questionnaire focusses on two key issues, namely the role of Customs in the control of firearms and ammunition used by PCASP, and the information required by Customs administrations on firearms. For additional information on Customs requirements concerning the control of firearms on board ships click here. For replies to the Questionnaire on Customs requirements concerning the Control of firearms and ammunition on board ships for use by Privately Contracted Armed Security Personnel (PCASP), click here.