International Maritime Organisation states that any company or a person can be held liable and be made to face sanctions for committing the offence if they are engaged in an unlawful act.
The Italian ambassador faces the prospects of being restrained from leaving India, but killing civilians by mistaking them for pirates is not something unheard of for those on the high seas.
In 2008, the Indian Navy got accolades for sinking a “pirate mother ship”. But much to their dismay, it turned out to be a Thai fishing trawler called Ekawat Nava 5. The Indian Navy had suspected there were pirates on board the vessel and shot in self-defence.
The Italian marines on board the Enrica Lexie, too, had mistaken Indian fishermen for pirates before opening fire on them in February 2012. Little did they know then, that a year later, the matter would escalate to a diplomatic row between the two countries.
Globally, shipping companies have refrained from keeping armed guards on board. It was not until two years ago that the International Maritime Organisation allowed ships to have armed personnel on board at their discretion, to guard against pirates. Although the IMO is yet to find a solution to the problem of piracy, its Suppression of Unlawful Acts (SUA) Convention covers unlawful acts of violence at sea. The 2005 protocol to the convention makes it “an offence to intentionally injure or kill any person in connection with the commission of any of the offences in the Convention.” According to the IMO, any company or a person can be held liable and be made to face sanctions for committing the offence if they are engaged in an unlawful act.
Italian marines Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone, were part of a military security team aboard the Enrica Lexie when they opened fire on a fishing boat in February last year, killing the two Indian fishermen. Italy says the shooting occurred in international waters and that Rome should have jurisdiction but India says the ship was in Indian territorial waters. “Whenever there is an instance of piracy and especially if you have taken action against it, you have to inform the International Maritime Bureau,” said Michael Pinto, former shipping secretary. “The Italian marines did not do that and instead tried to change their route and escape. They must have realised that they had shot the wrong people.”
While Italy is seeking international arbitration in the matter and the United Nations too has called for a peaceful resolution, shipping companies have been left wondering if they are now worse off in fighting the real pirates. Often, Somali pirates leave as fishermen from the coasts and become pirates on the high seas. “Fishermen” have also been found stealing cargo from ships or trailing vessels to obtain liquor or simply to sell fish caught by them. “Having an armed force which lacks any discipline on board, can play havoc on the high seas,” a senior executive of a shipping company said.
There are risks involved in putting armed personnel on board. Shipping lines instead prefer following a set of guidelines provided by the IMO to guard against piracy like bullet proof citadels, rubber pellet guns etc.
Naval forces of various countries including India and China have also come together to escort vessels through vulnerable stretches like the Suez Canal and also for patrolling the waters for any piracy threats. Since the Indian Navy refused to guard merchant vessels on board, several companies had sprung up to offer such personnel for ships.