Troubleshooting in the sea

Establish procedures to keep the waters safe for ships and fisherfolk

Written by Arun Prakash | Published: July 30, 2012 3:34:34 am

The emergence of maritime terrorism and the revival of piracy have added a new dimension to the hazards that have traditionally confronted seafarers,and innocent fisherfolk have now come in the line of fire. On the evening of July 16,an Indian fisherman was killed and three others,besides an Emirati national,injured when US navy personnel on board the Rappahannock,a replenishment ship,opened fire on a small motor vessel off the coast of Dubai.

According to an official statement from the US navy,the vessel was fired upon,in accordance with doctrine,after it “rapidly” approached the ship,disregarding repeated warnings. The incident has,however,caused great indignation in Tamil Nadu to which the unfortunate fishermen belonged,and India has asked the UAE authorities to open a criminal investigation into the incident.

While it would be inappropriate to pass judgment,of any sort,on this unfortunate incident,it is necessary to examine a few aspects,merely to see whether any preliminary lessons can be drawn. With a fishing fleet of nearly 200,000 vessels,of all sizes and shapes,the traffic density off the Indian coast invariably remains high. It is probably the same off Africa or the Arabian Peninsula,and as any warship captain will vouch,this makes coastal passage a nightmarish experience,especially by night. Merchant ships are fortunate because they sail mostly in deeper waters far from the coast.

And yet,on February 15,two Indian fishermen were shot dead by marines carried on board the Italian merchantman MV Enrica Lexie. This tanker,on passage from Singapore to Egypt,was reportedly between 14 and 22 miles from the Kerala coast (outside territorial waters but within the contiguous zone) when it encountered the fishing vessel. Mistaking it for a pirate skiff,two marines,borne by the ship for protection,opened fire,killing two of the fishermen. The Italian ship was asked to enter Kochi port where the two marines were placed under arrest and await trial for murder.

For a warship captain,it would be inconceivable that a band of outlaws,no matter how well armed,should threaten or attempt to board his ship,and he would act resolutely in accordance with the clear-cut rules of engagement (RoE) given to him. In October 2000,the RoE provided to the destroyer USS Cole did not allow security sentries to open fire on any craft,unless known to be a threat,without prior permission from the captain. While at anchor in Aden harbour,a boat approached the ship at high speed and exploded alongside,blowing a huge gash in the hull and killing 17 sailors. As the Rappahannock incident clearly shows,the latest RoE framed by the US navy have been,rightly,relaxed in terms of the discretion that they give to the man on the spot. This is appropriate in the current threat environment.

In the case of merchantmen,since there are normally no combatants on board,the ship’s master,having taken all possible preventive and evasive measures,has no choice but to permit boarding by the pirates/ terrorists and take his chances. It is only recently that merchant ships have been allowed to carry privately contracted armed security personnel (PCASP) in high-risk areas.

The guidance issued by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) with regard to PCASP states that a ship’s master will exercise command and will retain the overriding authority on board. This guidance does not provide any RoE nor does it offer any directions about the use of lethal force. Moreover,it deals only with civilian contracted personnel and not with the presence of military personnel on board merchant ships

It seems possible for the Rappahannock case to assume complex overtones,because it bears the prefix USNS (United States Naval Ship) rather than USS (United States Ship) since it is an auxiliary support vessel with a civilian crew. Should the Indian government take the same view of this incident as it did of the Enrica Lexie,it could,in theory,ask the UAE government to prosecute the US navy personnel that she carried on board or extradite them to India. However,a more fitting option would be for India to formally ask the US government to conduct an inquiry and deal appropriately with errant navy personnel.

Fishing communities of this region are likely to be up in arms against the growing risk posed to their kith and kin from “trigger-happy” armed personnel carried by ships for protection against pirates and terrorists. However,there are a number of complex issues that need consideration.

Firstly,the fishermen fraternity in our part of the world is focused on earning their livelihood,and frequently disregard hazards and warnings,with tragic consequences. Secondly,the PCASP,if carried,need to be properly briefed about the graduated application of force; and conditions under which lethal force may be used. Finally,uniformed personnel,if deputed,need to be indemnified by multilateral consent against legal action by other states for bona fide actions in the line of duty.

These are vexed issues that need to be urgently addressed,and this is an opportune moment for concerned maritime states to jointly evolve procedures for ensuring protection of shipping,without endangering safety of innocent fisherfolk. India,with one of the world’s largest fishing communities,must take the initiative.

The writer is a retired chief of naval staff,express@expressindia.com

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