One of my kind readers sent me a question about Captain Phillips and why the merchant ships depicted did not carry firearms or security personnel to combat pirates.
The International Maritime Organization was created by the United Nations and is the consensus building body for the governance of maritime trade, navigation and seafaring.
The IMO's official policy regarding carriage of firearms aboard vessels is, surprisingly, to NOT carry them.
Carriage of firearms on board merchant ships:
• Masters, shipowners and companies should be aware that ships entering the territorial sea and/or ports of a State are subject to that State’s legislation. It should be borne in mind that importation of firearms is subject to port and coastal State regulations. It should also be borne in mind that carrying firearms may pose an even greater danger if the ship is carrying flammable cargo or similar types of dangerous goods.
Non-arming of seafarers:
• The carrying and use of firearms by seafarers for personal protection or for the protection of a ship is strongly discouraged;
• Carriage of arms on board ship may encourage attackers to carry firearms or even more dangerous weapons, thereby escalating an already dangerous situation. Any firearm on board may itself become an attractive target for an attacker;
• It should also be borne in mind that shooting at suspected pirates may impose a legal risk for the master, shipowner or company, such as collateral damages. In some jurisdictions, killing a national may have unforeseen consequences even for a person who believes he or she has acted in self defence. Also the differing customs or security requirements for the carriage and importation of firearms should be considered, as taking a small handgun into the territory of some countries may be considered an offence.
There are moves afoot, however, to rethink this policy at the international level and by flag states. A vessel owner pondering the arming of crew to fight off pirates has several considerations. First, in many coastal nations of the world, it is illegal to possess firearms, so will their crews be subject to criminal prosecution during a port call? Second, will the ship's insurance company cover any claims for mishaps? Third, does the flag state permit or discourage the carriage of firearms onboard ships flying that country's flag? Fourth, by possessing firearms are you transporting them in international commerce, thereby posing a customs issue?
From a more geopolitical standpoint, the international community certainly expects that every coastal state regulate maritime activity in their coastal waters and police criminal activity occuring there too. Note that TYPICALLY, the areas where piracy flourishes are typically maritime areas that lack the governmental law enforcement presence necessary to tamp down such activity. That being said, incidents of piracy do occur worldwide.
As to the Maersk Alabama and Captain Phillips. As a U.S. flagged vessel, U.S. law would govern the carriage of firearms onboard. 18 U.S.C. 922 bars the importation or transport of firearms without a governmental permit. The Code of Federal Regulations provides additional requirements.