State Department Says No to Mercs at Sea
The U.S. State Department may have given rise to modern-day private armies with its personnel security contracts to protect diplomats in Iraq. But that doesn’t mean department officials want to see guns-for-hire on the high seas.
The prospect of having armed security guards ward off pirates presents a number of legal problems, according to Donna Hopkins, the Coordinator for Counter Piracy and Maritime Security in the State Department. “I think the legal and political implications of private, armed escorts at sea are hugely problematic and not likely to be answered in the next year or two,” she said earlier this week at the Navy League Sea Air Space Exposition.
The number of Somali-based pirate attacks has exploded over the past few years, as have the ransoms the pirates demand for safe return of ships and crewmembers. Pirates holding hijacked ships now often command between $3 and $5 million in ransom.
Despite that growing security threat, the State Department is wary of companies providing security services to combat piracy. “As a matter of policy and philosophy for many years, governments have reserved for themselves the right maintain a monopoly on the use armed force,” Hopkins said. “The idea of armed escorts on the high seas calls into question some serious philosophy in that regard.”
In fact, most ship-owners have been hesitant to turn to private security contractors, fearing the liability associated with playing host to armed guards outweighs any benefits they might provide. That may now be changing, with more companies looking to private companies to protect them from pirates.
“I do think you see a growth in the market,” said Doug Brooks, president of the International peace Operations Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group that represents private security and stability operations contractors.
The lack of support from State Department for such contractors could be viewed as ironic, given that the department’s Diplomatic Security bureau was responsible for one of the most notorious armed security contracts of all times: the Worldwide Personal Protective Services contract to Blackwater Worldwide, now known as Xe Services. The Blackwater contract in Iraq eventually ran afoul of the local government, particularly after the Nissour Square massacre.
At sea, ships face different government laws at each port they visit, making such services even more complex. Even some companies interested in the market have balked at the potential barriers.