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When the McArthur of Blackwater entered the fight against piracy

Blackwater had planned to rest for medical support at the FFDJ's Bouffard hospital (credit: 13dble)

This is part of the batch of revelations brought by Wikileaks and analyzed by the New York Times. The Djiboutian government in 2009 authorized the private American company Blackwater Worldwide (BW), received authorization to operate from the port of Djibouti, an armed vessel against pirates, to protect commercial vessels.

It's no secret that the fight against piracy is a vast market for private military companies, in the process of reconversion after the rather ostentatious era of Iraq. And that Blackwater invests it hoping for an outlet. An investment that did not have the expected result. On the other hand, what seems interesting to me are the details given in the telegram, the American support for this initiative which remains very cautious (we are awaiting instructions from the State Department, it is mentioned at the end of the telegram), and above all the motivation which is based on a fairly pragmatic approach (there is a market, American companies must be present, should we support them) as well as the sharing of information (Blackwater will communicate its SOP – operational procedure – to the embassies of Nairobi and Djibouti), sharing which is not illogical (and is commonly practiced).

A robust team of US boys, the French military hospital assisting and a Franco-Djiboutian intermediary

Blackwater thus obtained authorization for the “McArthur,” a former 183-foot NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) vessel flying the American flag, served by a crew of 33 men (all American citizens) 15 sailors and 3 teams 6 guards, armed. Blackwater does not intend to arrest the pirates but will use lethal force against the pirates. The ship is thus equipped with 50 caliber machine guns ". It has a helicopter platform but will not be equipped with one; however, a UAV will be on board. A " video system will record hacker activity ».

Interesting detail: the company negotiated, via an intermediary Inchcape, access for its men to the French Bouffard military hospital. And his local agent on site will be a Franco-Djiboutian, “ favorably known to the embassy » says Bruno Pardigon, who owns several companies, including a new one dedicated to maritime security “Djibouti Maritime Security Services” (DMSS).

Some questions: what to do with pirates, especially if they are injured?

If American private citizens do not want to guard pirates, it is difficult not to ask the question of arresting suspects. “ Even though the French handed over suspects to Puntland, Downey (the director of development for Africa, a former special forces officer) does not intend to do so, neither with Somalia nor with Kenya ". The diplomat – who we feel is very cautious about this commitment – ​​specifies that Blackwater cannot benefit from the agreement signed with Kenya, which is a government-to-government agreement.

This implication remains full of unknowns. “ There is no precedent for a paramilitary operation in a purely commercial environment ". And many questions arise. If international maritime law allows the use of force against pirates (2), Downey “ also recognizes the need to respect international humanitarian law”. But in practice: what to do with injured pirates? " without compromising the client's ability to protect ", we can clearly see how the problem is posed, and where the balance of priorities lies...

“BW has no intention of taking any pirates into custody. While the French have previously put pirates ashore in Puntland, Downey said BW had no plans to do so, either in Somalia or Kenya (noting that Kenya's bilateral PUC agreements with the USG and HMG were government-to-government). (…) While asserting that international maritime law allows the use of lethal force against pirates, BW also recognizes the need to respect international humanitarian obligations. Of concern, for example, is whether BW would be responsible for assisting injured pirates, if doing so endangered BW's ability to protect its client(s). »

Dilemma: supporting a US or not company

At the time of writing the telegram: “ Blackwater has no customers today (February 2009) but it intends to develop a market with the launch in March (2009) with the presence of officials. Cost of escort: less than $200.000.” The diplomat explains his dilemma. He therefore asks for “guidelines” on “appropriate engagement with Blackwater”, also respecting the government's role in trade defense and support for American businesses”.

“Post would appreciate Department's guidance on the appropriate level of engagement with Blackwater, while also fulfilling the USG's commercial advocacy responsibilities to support US firms. »

Epilogue: can we specify that after a fanfare start, XE (the new name of Blackwater) has decided to sell its flagship ship, the McArthur, as we learn from an American newspaper (1).

(1) The Virginian Pilot reports a reduced price of $3,7 million

(2) In my opinion, the exclusive use of force on the high seas is however reserved for public or authorized forces (except in cases of self-defense). And the “Blackwater” company cannot reintroduce itself into either of them, except by reintroducing the “letters of marque” which authorized merry men to go and raid (loot and sink if necessary) “enemy” ships.

look at the full telegram

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).