Sri Lanaka’s foray into the maritime security industry Floating armoury controversy – Part I
Posted on November 8th, 2016

Though much has been said and written in the past two years about the opaque operations of Avant Garde Maritime Services, most people know little or nothing of what it was all about – a classic case of a controversy creating more confusion than enlightenment. In this article, The Island staffer C. A. Chandraprema traces how Sri Lanka got drawn into the murky world of maritime security and the roles the Rajapaksa government and the private sector played in the operation.

In 2006 as the war intensified, the Defence Ministry set up Rakna Lanka Ltd, a fully government owned limited liability company to provide security services to important government installations and institutions such as the Mahaweli dams and the Petroleum Corporation etc. Made up entirely of ex-armed forces personnel this special security service was meant to eliminate the need to deploy army and police personnel to guard infrastructure and to release them for duties in the war zone. Rakna Lanka provided security services to 49 government institutions during and after the war. While Sri Lanka remained preoccupied with the war, a new development that took place in the Indian Ocean region was the rise of piracy off the coast of Somalia.


In December 2008 the UN Security Council issued Resolution No: 1851 expressing grave concern at the dramatic increase in the incidents of piracy off the coast of Somalia and noted that these attacks had expanded over a wide area in the Indian Ocean. The resolution called upon all states to take part actively in the fight against piracy. The Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia was created on 14 January 2009. When this threat first manifested itself, the shipping companies expected the navies in the region to protect their vessels. However even the combined strength of all the navies in the region was not able to guarantee the security of shipping in the Indian ocean and ships started carrying armed security guards. By May 2009, the United States Coast Guard had issued a directive to all US-flagged ships sailing around the Horn of Africa to have armed guards.

The UK was an early leader in deploying armed ‘sea marshals’ on board merchant shipping in the Indian ocean. The British House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee in a report on ‘Piracy off the coast of Somalia’ observed that the UK sits at the centre of the global shipping trade and aside from direct shipping interests, the maritime sector constitutes a major component of the UK insurance, banking and legal sectors and a very large proportion of ships travelling in the Indian ocean are insured in the UK, and that therefore piracy was very much a British problem. They further observed that ‘the evidence in support of using private armed security guards is compelling and that ship owners should be allowed to protect their ships and crew by employing private armed security guards’.

A British dominated industry

Noting that over 50% of the armed security on board ships is provided by UK nationals or foreign companies run by UK nationals, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee concluded that “… the Government should take a more proactive approach to facilitate an effective and safe legal regime for the carriage and use of weapons for the purposes of deterring piracy. We recommend that the Government actively engage with port and coastal states surrounding Somalia to establish an agreement on the carriage and transfer of weapons by private armed guards so that they can be securely removed from vessels once they have exited the high risk area”.

One of the countries that the British government (through their High Commissioner in Colombo) and the maritime security industry approached very early on in this regard was Sri Lanka, which at their request began storing the weapons of private maritime security companies at the navy armoury in Galle from December 2009 onwards. The first weapons stored in this manner were those of sea marshals on board a ship belonging to the Norwegian shipping conglomerate, Wilhelmsen Company. Galle, being located just outside the high risk area in the Indian Ocean soon became a hub for private maritime security personnel to embark and disembark from ships.

When the sea marshals of these foreign private maritime security companies were to arrive in Galle, the local agent of the relevant maritime security company would inform the Defence Ministry and obtain the necessary clearance for the storage of the weapons. When the ship nears Galle, the local agent would go to the ship in a hired boat along with a navy representative, who would make sure that the sea marshals were disembarking from the ship mentioned in the documents and they would all return to the Galle harbour, where the navy would help the foreign sea marshals through Customs. Then their weapons would be deposited in the navy armoury and the local agent would take the sea marshals to Katunayake and send them home by plane. Every such transfer was approved separately by the Defence Ministry. When embarking on ships for duty, the process would be reversed. All the international maritime security companies operating in the Indian Ocean soon had agents in Sri Lanka to look after their sea marshals. The navy earned an itemised fee per day for storing the weapons and equipment such as the body armour of private maritime security companies.

At this early stage, none of the numerous land based security companies in Sri Lanka was involved in the maritime security industry. The ‘maritime security companies’ in Sri Lanka were actually shipping companies acting as the agents for foreign maritime security companies and didn’t have security personnel and weapons in Sri Lanka. As the maritime security industry burgeoned, in July 2010, several foreign private maritime security companies led by Protect Risk Management Solutions Ltd and Varic Security Offshore suggested to Rakna Lanka that they should hire out armed sea marshals to be deployed on ships. The private maritime security companies were attracted to Rakana Lanka because it was a government owned enterprise operating under the Ministry of Defence and all its guards were ex- service personnel well trained in handling firearms and fully vetted by the authorities.

Furthermore, the weapons used by Rakna Lanka belonged to the government of Sri Lanka and there were no problems about the legality of those weapons. The Maritime Security arm of Rakna Lanka was established in March 2011 and they became the first land based security company in Sri Lanka to have a maritime security arm. However, Rakna Lanka depended on the foreign maritime security companies to bring business to them. When the latter makes a request for sea marshals, Rakna Lanka provided the men and weapons and obtained a fee for their services based on a written agreement. On 19 March 2011 Rakna Lanka provided its first on board security team to Inter Ocean Services Ltd to deploy onboard MV Emerald.

IMO formulates industry guidelines

In the meantime, the International Maritime Organisation had formulated regulations for private maritime security companies and sea marshals. On 16 September 2011, the Maritime Security Committee of the IMO issued Circular No: 1408 giving its recommendations to member states on the use of privately contracted armed security personnel on board ships where they said:

“The use of privately contracted armed security personnel on ships is a very recent and still evolving development. Existing national legislation, policies and procedures may not have been developed taking into account or to cater for the various scenarios related to the embarkation or disembarkation of privately contracted sea marshals or their firearms. Member Governments, should have in place policies and procedures to facilitate the movement of privately contracted sea marshals and of their firearms … The recommendations contained in this document are not intended in any manner to override or otherwise interfere with the national legislation of a State. However, at the same time, they recognize the concerns and interests of the owners of ships navigating through the high risk area.”

On 25 May 2012, the IMO Maritime Security Committee Issued Circular No: 1405 laying down guidelines to ship owners on the use of privately contracted armed security personnel on board ships. This circular sought to advise ship owners on the criteria to be applied when selecting private maritime security companies to provide security for their ships. They were advised to check on the registration of the security company, its ownership, its annual accounts and bank references, the extent of its insurance cover, the experience of its senior management etc. The private security companies were also required to produce evidence of actual maritime security experience as against land based security, and proof of the legal possession of firearms etc.

On the same day the IMO Maritime Security Committee issued circular No: 1443 to private maritime security companies stressing that they needed to perform thorough checks on the criminal background, history of employment, military background, physical and mental fitness, drug and alcohol abuse, competence in the use of firearms etc when recruiting sea marshals. The private maritime security company also had to ensure that the sea marshals it recruited had adequate training to carry out their duties. Sri Lanka had joined the IMO (a UN body) in 1972 and its directives constitute a part of Sri Lanka’s international obligations. By 2011, there were more than two dozen companies (mainly shipping companies) in Sri Lanka acting as the Sri Lankan agents of international maritime security companies. On 13 September 2011, Avant Garde Maritime Services became the twenty fifth private maritime security company to register with Rakna Lanka to obtain the services of sea marshals.

Avant Garde hits the ground running

At that time Avant Garde was one of the largest land based private security firms in the country and had done an extensive study of the maritime security industry before entering it. No other private land based security company in Sri Lanka had entered the maritime security industry by that time. In 2011, As they signed up with Rakna Lanka, Avant Garde hit the ground running by signing a separate agreement to provide sea marshals for fishing vessels in the Indian ocean – a business that they had on their own canvassed and brought to Sri Lanka.

None of the foreign maritime security companies that had agents in Sri Lanka were involved in this niche business. The difference between an ordinary sea marshal and a fishing trawler sea marshal was that the latter had to spend more than six months at a time on board the trawler. Rakna Lanka sea marshals were reluctant to take up these jobs and Avant Garde looked for recruits on their own who were then vetted, registered and provided with weapons and equipment on hire by Rakna Lanka. At this early stage, Avant Garde established several ‘forward operational bases’ along the coast of Africa and in the Middle East, to look after their fishing trawler sea marshals.

The way sea marshals were hired out to the numerous clients Rakna Lanka had was either to send the full complement of three or four guards with weapons and equipment or to hire out just three or four assault rifles and equipment accompanied by a Rakna Lanka sea marshal who would look after the weapons given on hire. These weapons would then be used by the foreign sea marshals of the private maritime security company with the Rakna Lanka custodian also functioning as a member of the security team. Handing the weapons back to Rakna Lanka was the responsibility of the respective private maritime security company. Rakna Lanka kept a cash deposit against losses and damages for weapons and ammunition issued in this manner. Each such deployment would be approved by a specially designated Additional Secretary of the Defence Ministry.

In Sri Lanka, many land based private security companies had authorisation to use firearms. The licence for the firearms was granted to the owner or director of the security firm (who had to be a retired armed forces or police officer above a certain rank) and he would assign the weapons to his guards who would have the necessary police clearances and a ‘watcher’s permit’ issued by the District Secretariat. In similar fashion, Rakna Lanka had authorisation from the Defence Ministry to own firearms which could be assigned to their guards. On occasions when foreign sea marshals of private maritime security companies used Rakna Lanka firearms on ships, the regulations that applied were firstly, the legal clearance and registration of that private maritime company in an IMO member country as per the IMO directives, secondly the registration of those foreign sea marshals in an IMO member country in accordance with their domestic laws and the guidelines of the IMO, and certification of their competence to bear arms and thirdly, the internationally binding agreement the private maritime security company had with Rakna Lanka.

The Baltic and International Maritime Council or BIMCO – the world’s largest ship owners’ association has stated in a Security Advisory that the onus was on the ship owners to check the licences of the weapons used by the private maritime security companies they chose. If the latter are hiring their weapons and equipment from third parties, the ship owner have to ensure that those weapons have the required licences and permits issued by state authorities so as not to be in violation of Clause 10 of GUARDCON – the standard contract entered into between ship owners and private maritime security companies for the deployment of sea marshals.

Rakna Lanka had an armoury located in the BMICH premises under police supervision for its sea marshals using the Colombo port and another armoury in the Galle navy camp for those using the Galle harbour. According to UN Security Council document No: S/2012/544 of 13 July 2012, the Security Council considered the question of the lack of oversight by an international regulatory authority over the weapons used by private maritime security organisations and said that this loophole enabled some private maritime security companies to use illegal or unregistered weapons which could be obtained cheaply from dealers in Yemen and Egypt. In this context, the Security Council observed that weapons could be officially leased from certain Governments such as Sri Lanka, Djibouti, and Comoros and that that was an option ‘when strictly regulated, probably provided the greatest degree of oversight’.

Hiccups in UNSC endorsed system

However, renting out weapons and equipment even to well recognised maritime security companies did not go well at first. This was a matter that came to the notice of the UN Security Council as well. They stated in document No: S/2012/544 that in 2011, the Sri Lankan Government reportedly lost track of a large number of government-owned weapons that it had rented out to various private maritime security companies. (These were subsequently recovered by Avant Garde on behalf of Rakna Lanka.) In one case, three T-56 assault rifles leased to the UK-registered company Marine Risk Management were taken on board a Finnish ship at Galle on route to Gibraltar and when the Rakna Lanka custodian accompanying the weapons flew back to Sri Lanka from Gibraltar, the UK company had failed to send back the weapons and they were found only after the ship reached its next port of call in Poland.

As a solution to this problem of weapons being misplaced, a ‘closed network’ system was devised by Rakna Lanka in collaboration with Avant Garde by expanding their network of forward operational bases to eight in such locations as the Seychelles, Maldives, South Africa, Mauritius, Djibouti, Kenya, Tanzania and Oman and also by establishing land based armouries in Muscat, Dar Es Salam, Mauritius and Durban (run by the police or army in those countries) as well as two floating armouries in the Red sea and Gulf of Oman to handle the weapons of Rakna Lanka sea marshals ending their tours at that end of the high risk zone. This created a closed system where Rakna Lanka weapons, equipment and sea marshals embarked or disembarked from anywhere in the high risk zone of the Indian ocean would be collected and looked after by this network without the likelihood of any weapons being misplaced.

This operation became the most comprehensive maritime security system in the Indian Ocean and no foreign maritime security company could match it. The investment in the floating armouries, land based armouries and the ‘forward operations bases’ on the other side of the Indian Ocean were all done by Avant Garde without Rakna Lanka or the Sri Lankan government investing any money. The international marketing aspect of the operation was also handled by Avant Garde. Rakna Lanka was from the beginning dependent on the private maritime security companies to bring business to them. The partnership between Rakna Lanka and Avant Garde took the maritime security industry in the Indian Ocean to new level.

(To be continued tomorrow)

One Response to “Sri Lanaka’s foray into the maritime security industry Floating armoury controversy – Part I”

  1. Christie Says:

    When Banda was appointed by the Indian Empire in 1956 he nationalized the emerging Sinhala enterprises. Sirisena in 2015.

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