The United Kingdom has clarified rules on when armed guards aboard commercial vessels flying U.K. flags are allowed to fire at pirate vessels. The rule is focused on vessels in the Indian Ocean, which constantly must be on the lookout for Somali pirates. Previous versions of official guidance have been unclear, and this update to the statutes is intended to give guidance to security teams to help them make real-time decisions in the field.
The main clarification is that security teams do have the right to fire first if Somali pirates are spotted and confirmed. Members of Parliament agreed that teams and ships must conduct themselves from within the framework of current U.K. common and statute law.
The law is clear that if imminent danger is present, ships need not wait until being attacked to defend themselves. Such pre-emptive action, however, is only justified when a threat is imminent and unavoidable. Crews are not allowed to fire on other ships unless they are engaged in an obvious act of piracy. Anything else would be illegal, although warning shots are not considered to be part of this restriction.
Foreign Office minister Henry Bellingham described the guidance as producing “that of a graduated response,” reminding fellow MP’s that “we make it clear it is illegal to use force for retaliation or revenge.”