Anti-Piracy Turns Deadly for Innocent Fishermen

Published: 06 February 2013

By Eliza Ronalds-Hannon


Last month we wrote about the remarkable decline in piracy that's been achieved through a combination of private and public sector initiatives. Among the most significant factors in that decline was the adoption by merchant ships of a comprehensive set of “best management practices” (BMP), which included directions for on-board security. 

The BMPs suggested all ships should employ armed guards to protect against pirate attacks, along with physical barriers like barbed wire around the deck’s perimeter. As a result, most merchant ships today carry one or more men (or women) armed with assault weapons, keeping an eye out for approaching pirate ships.

That’s worked out great for the ships – pirate attacks were down by 43 percent in 2011 compared to 2010, and down another 43 percent in 2012, according to Bloomberg’s investigation.  But it has had quite a different impact on local fishermen, who have often been on the receiving end of armed guard fire.

International naval forces have shot seven Yemeni fishermen since 2009, killing five of them, according to reports Bloomberg News obtained from the government. Fishermen from India and Oman have also died in the Indian Sea.

Since these incidents usually happen in international waters, it is hard to determine who has the jurisdiction to investigate, let alone bring charges.

In one case that reporter Peter Katz investigated, a Norwegian-flagged tanker manned by Russian soldiers and a private security team shot Yemeni fisherman Mohammed Ali Quanas in the head, killing him as he kneaded bread for dinner on his small fishing boat.

The Norway police decided not to open an official investigation into Quanas’s death due to jurisdictional complications. Since the alleged shooters were Russians, there was very little chance the case would make any progress in Norway, prosecutors told Katz.

Unclear jurisdiction makes it hard to know how many fishermen have been killed. Crews and ship owners are obviously reluctant to report such incidents, and in international waters, no reporting protocol exists.

This isn’t the first scandal that’s emerged from these anti-piracy measures. The guards sometimes store or even abandon their weapons when entering strictly regulated waters, to avoid smuggling charges. Those arms have ended up in the wrong hands more than once. In Mozambique, five police officers were found with 62 weapons and ammunition belonging to one of the private security companies, according to the 2011 Report by the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea.

Under pressure from human rights organizations and the International Maritime Organization (which will debate the issue at a meeting next month), governments are working on establishing comprehensive rules to regulate armed guards at sea.