by Christien van den Brink
THE HAGUE, Sept. 23 (Xinhua) -- The Netherlands is one of the last European countries that doesn't allow Dutch ship owners to involve private security contractors for the protection of their merchant vessels against piracy.
The issue has triggered a debate in the country and there might be some change along the way.
"Put your hands up and kneel down on the floor!" In the port of Rotterdam, four Dutch pirates climb up on a small fishing boat that is crowded with passengers.
While everybody does what the armed pirates say, most of the hostages take out their smartphones and start to film their capture, which illustrates that no one really takes the naval exercise very seriously. Besides, they know a speedboat full of well-trained marines will eventually save them.
The Royal Netherlands Navy organizes these counter-piracy demonstrations a few times a year. By showing the audience how a counter-piracy mission works, they hope to create some understanding about their work.
Their work as defenders of the maritime world is deep-rooted in the Dutch history. Trade and shipping were the basis for the economic prosperity of the Netherlands during the Golden Age. To protect the national interests a maritime defense was considered as a top priority.
That hasn't changed. Until now, the Royal Netherlands Navy has been carrying out operations against piracy by deploying several ships off the coast of Somalia as part of the NATO and EU counter-piracy missions.
"Historically, the Netherlands has relied on international trade, so there has always been a reason to protect our merchant fleet from pirates," Andre Eilander, spokesperson of the Dutch Marine, told Xinhua.
But the huge area in which modern-day pirates operate means that military patrols will rarely be on hand to prevent attacks, creating a "security gap."
As piracy has escalated, stretching state resources, an increasing number of ship owners and operators have invited private maritime security contractors to help protect their ships and customers' cargoes.
Dutch shipping companies in the need for protection can apply to the ministry of defense. But according to maritime security consultant William van Amstel, not all ships will apply for this form of protection because the costs are too high or the procedure takes too long.
"In order to avoid the Dutch regulations, many ship owners choose to reflag their vessels. They do everything to retain a level playing field in their competition with other firms, while the state is missing out on important income," van Amstel told Xinhua.
And while other countries in Europe are moving or have already moved towards the legalization of armed security contractors, the Netherlands is still hesitating.
Defense Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plaschaert (VVD) is preparing legislation making it possible to hire private security in case the Royal Dutch Navy cannot protect sufficiently. But her bill proposal, that is expected to be finished by the end of 2013, encounters resistance among several opposition parties such as the Socialist Party, D66 and the Central Democrats.
"We do not want to allow private armed security in either form, because this would necessarily breach the government's monopoly on the use of force," Socialist Party MP Jasper van Dijk told Xinhua.
But according to the labor party, the coalition partner of the Liberals in the second Rutte cabinet, it is important to maintain military protection units by making them cheaper and more flexible, while allowing the use of private firms only under strict criteria to a certain category of small vessels.
"If this space is provided for private security guards, it should always be done under the responsibility and supervision of the government," Labor MP Sultan Gunal-Gezer told Xinhua.