Secretary-General, President, your Excellencies, Ministers, High Commissioners and Ambassadors, distinguished delegates.
It is a great pleasure to join you for this important debate.
As a major trading nation and a global maritime centre, the UK places great importance on shipping.
The Red Ensign Group is the sixth largest trading fleet in the world, and shipping accounts for over 90% of the UK’s visible imports and exports.
While the broader maritime industry supports more than 250,000 UK jobs; and contributes over £13 billion to our GDP.
Just as we want to see this industry prosper, we also want to see a safe and prosperous global maritime industry.
Free and safe trading by sea is crucial to world economic growth.
Anything that affects the transport of goods by sea and threatens the safety of seafarers should be a matter of the gravest concern to the international community.
So I am delighted that the International Maritime Organisation is holding this high level debate into the sensitive issue of privately contracted armed guards on ships, and I’d like to thank Ministers and senior representatives from governments around the world for giving up their time to be here.
Global problem, global response
The British Prime Minister David Cameron recently described Somali piracy as “a complete stain on our world”.
He was absolutely right.
What began 20 years ago as a small scale problem in the coastal waters around the Horn of Africa has - over the past decade - grown into a highly sophisticated and lucrative business… threatening shipping throughout the Western Indian Ocean, and costing the international economy an estimated $7 billion a year.
But while governments and the shipping industry feel the financial impact, it’s the human victims of Somali piracy who are paying the biggest price.
In recent years, thousands of seafarers have been attacked, assaulted, used as human shields, or kept in extended confinement in Somalia.
It is reported that in the past 4 years alone, more than 60 have died.
And violence against victims is increasing.
Through their indiscriminate and brutal aggression, the pirates have made clear that any crew member on any vessel is a target.
Whatever your nationality, faith, or business; and whatever flag your ship is flying, you are seen as fair game.
So we are all in this together.
And it’s clear to me that if we want to find an effective and lasting solution to the global threat of Somali piracy, we need a global response.
Progress in recent years
Of course the international community and the shipping industry have made substantial progress in recent years.
I am sure we all welcome yesterday’s successful operation conducted by the European Naval Forces’ Operation Atalanta to disrupt pirates’ logistical dumps in Somalia. This will increase the pressure on, and disrupt pirates’ efforts to get out to sea to attack merchant shipping and dhows.
Navies from more than 20 countries are currently patrolling the seas around Somalia and the Gulf.
Many specific initiatives to tackle piracy are also being implemented.
For example, the UK has announced funding for a range of counter-piracy projects. These include supporting regional justice systems and prison capacity building in Mauritius, the Seychelles, Tanzania and Somalia so pirates can be prosecuted and punished.
Our officials are also working to help Kenya seize pirates’ assets. And together with the Netherlands we are supporting a regional centre in the Seychelles for co-ordinating intelligence and pursuing the leaders and funders of piracy.
I’m pleased to say that many other states are involved in a range of similar initiatives to tackle piracy.
And, of course, the IMO is taking important steps to build capacity in the region.
The shipping industry has also developed and implemented a wide range of best management practices to deter attacks and boost protection.
But I resolutely believe that we need more than a series of unilateral responses to the problem of piracy.
We need a global response. And I believe one of the most effective ways we can capitalise on our shared strengths would be to develop an internationally agreed approach to the use of armed guards on ships.
Last October the British government announced that we would allow the use of armed guards on British flagged ships in exceptional circumstances.
This might apply to vessels crossing the high risk area when best management practices on their own may be considered insufficient to prevent attacks.
I know that many other flag states are taking similar action.
This decision was not one we took lightly. Having armed guards on ships generates risks as well as benefits. But where their use is justified by a full risk assessment, and where professional standards can be achieved and assured, we believe armed guards can provide an effective deterrent.
Perhaps as a result of all of these actions, the number of successful attacks on shipping actually fell during the second half of last year.
More to do
I welcome and applaud all the positive measures being taken to tackle this global problem.
But there is absolutely no room for complacency.
In fact we need to work together more closely… developing new strategies… using our collective expertise and combined focus to their very best effect.
Despite all the progress we’ve made, the pirates still have it too easy.
The Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden are among the busiest and most valuable shipping routes in the world. 22,000 ships pass through the Gulf each year, and the value of EU bound cargo exposed to Somali piracy, for instance, is $952 billion.
Yet the vast expanse of water in which the pirates operate obviously limits the effectiveness of naval patrols or other security vessels.
Although fewer ships may be being taken, last year the number of attacks actually rose.
Massive ransoms are still being paid out. Last year they reached a total of $160 million - an average of $5 million per captured ship.
And too few pirates are being brought to justice.
Action on land to improve stability remains the ultimate answer but will take time.
So until regional stability is assured, and while the profits from hijacking ships outweigh the perceived risks in the minds of the pirates, these gangsters of the sea will pose a continuing threat.
So the UK believes there are 2 key priorities now for the international community.
First, we need to ensure that the protective measures are effective and safe for the seafarer.
I therefore welcome the work of the IMO on the development of guidance for shipowners and flag states on the use of privately employed armed security guards.
I also welcome the interim guidance provided to private maritime security companies by Working Group 3 of the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia.
The UK remains committed to assisting this work as we develop and implement our own national standards for private security companies, and as we keep our guidance to UK flagged ship owners up to date.
But we are clear that ultimately we need an international accreditation scheme for PMSCs - so only the highest quality organisations are employed, and so all vessels have guards on board who meet agreed security standards.
We would like the new system to be in place as soon as possible, and we believe that the entire process of international accreditation must be open, transparent and inclusive.
But it must also be practical to deliver.
So the UK would like to see an internationally co-ordinated and consistent process for embarking and disembarking private security staff and weapons in countries around the region - to ensure the safety of seafarers and vessels.
The second key priority is action to undermine the ‘business model’ that currently makes piracy pay.
We welcome and support the work of the contact group in this area which includes disrupting the illicit movements of money associated with piracy.
And we are delighted that a range of countries have agreed to join the UK led International Piracy Ransoms Taskforce, announced by David Cameron at the London Conference on Somalia in February.
This taskforce will consider ways to prevent the flow of cash to pirates. The first meeting of this taskforce will take place at the end of the month.
We know that tackling these issues will not be easy, and there may be no quick answers, but it remains critical that we work together as an international community to identify the way forward.
So, to conclude, we face a very resolute and aggressive enemy, based in one of the poorest nations on earth, facing some of the greatest challenges.
And we know that combating the threat in the coming years will be extremely tough.
So we need to make the very best use of the strengths and resources we have.
And we are at our strongest when we’re together….
United in our commitment to protect shipping.
United in our strategy to improve regional stability.
And united in our determination to stamp out the menace of piracy for good.