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Problems With The Shooting Of Two Indian Fishermen By Italian Ship Enrica Lexie – OpEd


By Commodore R. S. Vasan

The cold blooded murder of two Indian fishermen by the armed guards on the Italian ship Enrica Lexie on 15th evening clearly illustrates that all is not well in the response structures against piracy and armed robbery. While a complete investigation is definitely needed to establish the sequence of events that led to this unfortunate incident, from what is available in the public domain and by the reports by independent agencies, it is clear that the security guards and the master failed to read the developing situation correctly and ended up in killing the fishermen who were fishing in the exclusive economic zone of India that extends up to 200 nautical miles from the coast. The Italian authorities have claimed that they fired warning shots and the alleged pirate boat moved away. From the reports available it is clear that the armed guards were trigger happy and there are many questions about the training and professionalism of the Italian guards (reported to be from the Navy).

The carriage of armed guards was permitted only after the phenomenal increase in the piracy attacks particularly in and around the horn of Africa including the Somalian waters. For centuries of seafaring, the armed guards by and large have been not allowed for various reasons. However, there were compelling reasons in the recent years that forced the IMO and the UNSC to permit trained armed guards for protection. This saw a mushrooming of many security solution providers who knew that there was plenty of profit to be made. While sizeable numbers employed do have a marine background, there are some who may have not operated in the trying and harsh marine environment. Even India allowed deployment of armed guards in end August 2011 and recommended stringent recruitment standards. It also has made it compulsory for the details of the security guards to be provided to the concerned authorities in a port. In the case of India, while it has allowed the armed guards, it does not allow bringing in of unlicensed/unregistered arms in to a port and has stringent regulations that prohibit the movement of arms and ammunition in to and out of India. The armed guards have found a solution by dumping of such arms prior to entering a port or by disembarking at a port which allows arms. Many ships resort to this action by going to Colombo which does allow the arms to be brought in by the security guards. The profit of margins is so high that the security companies can afford to dump the arms and yet make huge profits.

Coming back to the shooting incident on 15th evening, it is clear that the security guards and the crew of the ship misread the intentions of the fishing vessel which was legitimately engaged in fishing with in the EEZ of India. Here are some issues that need to be understood prior to analyzing the actions of the trigger happy security guards.

  • The ship was transiting quite close to India and should have alerted the Coast Guard, the Navy and or the Port authorities about the suspicious actions if any. It may be recalled that the Indian Navy thwarted an actual piracy attack on a Chinese vessel in May 2011 by quickly deploying its maritime aircraft which buzzed the pirates who abandoned their effort on being warned by the long range maritime aircraft TU 142 which remained in the area till the arrival of other warships deployed for anti piracy missions. In that case, the TU142 was in the area within 30 minutes of the warning. The crew onboard had locked themselves in a citadel to deny being taken over by the pirates. Similar action would have been taken by the naval or CG authorities as the area was less than 15 minutes of flying even in a helicopter carrying commandos. It is also noteworthy that the timing of the shoot was at 1630 hrs providing adequate time for recognizing that it was a genuine fishing boat and not a skiff which is the standard boat for such attacks. Sound seamanship practices have clearly been given the goby that led to this tragic incident. A little more care and caution in drawing the right inferences would have prevented the loss of innocent lives.
  • The Indian Coast Guard has an effective system for Search and Rescue in which the ships entering the Indian Search and Rescue Region (this area is over 4 million square kilometers) are required to report to the concerned CG authorities as specified in the INDSAR system. The system has been effective as it allows the Coast Guard to monitor the progress of a ship entering its area of responsibility and is able to provide any assistance to this ship should it be faced with an emergency. While it was essential for provision of the SAR cover, the system post Mumbai terror attacks has enabled Law enforcement authorities to keep track of the vessels that are plying in an area that is twice the size of India’s EEZ. There is a need to establish if any such voluntary reporting was made by the ship in question and also whether they were aware of the system. As per the BMP, the ship that faces a potential threat is required to report to UKMTO based in Dubai and other organizations. Most ships have resorted to hugging the Indian coast before shaping course towards their final destinations in Africa or Middle East. However, there is a need for the BMP to also include the local authorities in the list depending on the area of operation. If any ship is transiting along the Indian coast which is increasingly the practice, it is obvious that the ships plying through these routes are aware of the agencies to be contacted for instant response by the Navy or the Coast Guard.
  • The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has promulgated a document called Best Management Practices (BMP)4 that provide clear directives to ship owners, ship’s crew on the methods that would enhance the safety of the ship and help in preventing any attacks. As per statistics, it has been established that the ships which comply with the BMP are less susceptible to attack. While it is also true, that the presence of the Armed guards also deters pirates, any action to neutralize a developing threat if any demands greater responsibility, professionalism, training and calibrated responses. It is obvious that the security guards did not assess the situation correctly and also have not complied with the provisions of BMP 4. BMP clearly indicates that deployment of armed guards is not a substitute for BMP. According to the BMP, the standard actions required are to increase speed, alter course and also deploy fire hoses, barbed wire, Acoustic devices etc., .
  • The BMP also clearly indicates the modus operandi of pirates who move in pairs in high speed skiffs fitted with two OBMs and also carry RPGs and AK 47s besides a ladder that they use to board a ship. The fishing boat that came under attack was a slow speed vessel which apparently was just waiting for the ship to pass before continuing with tuna fishing. The claims by the Italian ship that they came under fire has been proved to be wrong after a physical inspection of the merchant ship by the Indian navy which saw no evidence of any bullet marks on the ship’s structure.
  • The global community is quite clear about the concept of the freedom of the high seas where all vessels have a right of innocent passage and are not to be interfered with. What needs to be understood is that this freedom is not the exclusive prerogative of such vessels but also available for any vessel including smaller fishing vessels which are engaged in legitimate activity in their own EEZ or the high seas.
  • Last but not the least, coming close on the heels of the grounding of Costa Concordia, where the Captain was accused of being negligent there are many questions that need to be answered by the concerned Italian ministry on the professional competence of their merchantmen.

By all accounts it is clear that the security guards and the Master have over reacted and have failed to assess the intentions of the fishing vessel and have caused death by negligence. The detailed investigations would bring out the lacunae if any in the reporting systems and also focus on the deficiency of training and preparation of the security guards who are deployed on ships in different parts of the world. The inputs would be vital in reviewing the BMP and also issuing additional Maritime Security Circulars by IMO which should highlight the need for caution while employing armed guards.

(The author is presently the Head, Strategy and Security Studies at the Center for Asia Studies at Chennai and can be contacted at [email protected] The views expressed by the author are his own)

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SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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