Mike Penning, a UK official, said the adoption of more self-defensive measures has helped fight piracy. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

The adoption of private armed security forces on ships traversing the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden shipping corridor has led to a serious drop in piracy incidents in 2012, delegates heard on Wednesdayday at the second international piracy conference in Dubai.

Mike Penning, Minister of Shipping for the Department of Transport in the UK, said the adoption of more self-defensive measures by private shipping companies to fend off pirate attacks is certainly helping to stem the onslaught of marauding pirates.

Statistics by EU Naval Force for the first six months of 2012 show 30 recorded piracy incidents off Somalia as compared to 176 incidents reported last year.

“There are different reasons. The international military community has really gotten its act together. The weather has played its part this year. We all know about the downtime season. But no ship with an armed guard have been attacked since we changed the rules,” Penning told Gulf News yesterday in Dubai.

Efforts are now underway, he said, through the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and partners to establish a set list of international protocols by which private armed guards aboard commercial shipping vessels would adhere.

The establishment of ground rules would also offer some guidelines for international ports to help them administer proper dockside etiquette for commercial vessels armed to the teeth with the latest defensive military weapons.

Penning said he recently met with top IMO officials in Brussels to discuss the growing use of private armed security escorts aboard larger shipping vessels.

“I think the IMO has really come around. We’ve worked really hard with them,” Penning said. “This is not going to be compulsory, but if we do let’s have a set or rules and have that opportunity so that we don’t have cowboys out there.”

The best offence to piracy may be the best defence.

“We must make sure we are coordinated and to make sure that if anyone thinks they can start with us, that we’re not going to walk away, we will come down on you straight away,” he said.

Tom Kelly, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Political Military Affairs of the United States, confirmed that not a single armed vessel has been lost to pirates in the last two years since private security teams were implemented.

“Not a single ship with a private embarked crew has ever been hijacked,” Kelly said in an interview at the piracy conference, adding that about 80 per cent of private ships are now employing best management practices to avoid calamity.

The “rapid adoption is a real accomplishment” and is helping reduce numbers of incidents, he said.

That said, Kelly agreed that private armies under commercial watch need some form of international code of conduct to ensure that the solution does not become larger than the original problem.

He lauded the UAE special forces for its daring April 1 raid on pirates who had raided and boarded a UAE tanker. In May of this year, 10 of the pirates taken into custody were sentenced to life in prison.

Kelly said the decision by the UAE Federal Court are “the only life sentences given out to pirates outside of the United States,” to date in the war against Somali piracy.