Does Maritime Security Require a New United Nations Structure?

Warships from Greece, Italy, Cyprus, and France participate in a joint military exercise which was held in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea from 26-28 of August, 2020. (Greek Defense Ministry via AP)

On the 9th of August, the United Nations (UN) Security Council held a high-level open debate on maritime security, chaired by the prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, and attended by the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, and the president of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta. The debate was one of the priorities of the Indian presidency of the Council and took place in the context of increasing urgency at the Council toward issues such as piracy, maritime terrorism, and other incidents at sea.

What are the key concerns?

While there is no agreed definition of the term of maritime security, three dimensions are involved:

The interstate dimension is concerned with boundary disputes over resources and territory, and provocations or violations of international law, for instance through “gray zone” warfare at sea. Issues here concern the diverging claims in the South China Sea, the future of the Arctic, safety in the Strait of Hormuz, and the use of coastguards and fishing fleets in maritime disputes.

The second dimension is linked to extremist violence. While large-scale terrorist activities have not been observed at sea, extremist organizations have attacked ships and used the sea as conduits. The Southeast Asian Abu Sayyaf group for instance engaged in piracy in the Sulu and Celeb Sea, while Somalia’s al-Shabaab finances its operations through maritime smuggling. Violence on the land often spills over to the sea, as can be witnessed in the attacks on shipping off the coast of Yemen.

The third dimension concerns blue crime, that is, different expressions of transnational organized crime at sea. This includes piracy in regions such as the Gulf of Guinea and Strait of Malacca, the smuggling of illicit goods and people, such as narcotic trade across the Atlantic, and the smuggling of migrants in the Mediterranean, but also environmental issues such as illegal fishing and pollution at sea.

Addressing Maritime Security in the United Nations System

While naval warfare, piracy, and maritime boundary disputes are not new phenomena—nor are debates around maritime sovereignty and rights—and have long been the concern of major global security actors, the concept of maritime security within international peace and security is relatively new. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) came into force in 1994, providing a basic legal foundation and creating three new institutions: the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, the International Seabed Authority, and the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.

In the past ten years, the UN Security Council (UNSC) has issued an unprecedented number of resolutions and statements on maritime security both in national and regional contexts and on thematic issues. These complement and expand UNCLOS, in particular concerning implementation challenges. The Council was proactive in addressing threats of piracy off the coast of Somalia and the Gulf of Guinea, starting from 2008. But it has addressed other crimes, such as people smuggling in the Mediterranean or the spillover from the conflict in Yemen into the maritime domain.

Earlier in August, the Council also debated the drone attack on the oil tanker MV Mercer Street, in which two crew died, which has been attributed to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Members are also increasingly concerned about environmental problems, such as the impact of illegal fishing and maritime accidents, and biodiversity loss more generally.

However, these issues continue to be viewed in terms of particular geographic hot spots and the management of specific threats, and have largely been treated in silos.

Shared objectives and geopolitical barriers

If maritime security is of increasing importance, how can it be dealt with in a more coherent manner within the United Nations system? The dimension of terrorism can well be addressed through the existing counterterrorism provisions. The interstate dimension remains contested. Ongoing territorial disputes, gray zone warfare at sea, and the situation in the South China Sea are highly politicized issues that need to be discussed at the UNSC or within the institutions of the Law of the Sea. It is the criminal dimension that presents the most potential for coordinating responses. When it comes to blue crimes, the August 9 UNSC debate indicates a broad-based consensus among member states that the UN should be proactively involved in mitigation efforts.

Indeed, speakers at the debate highlighted the need for more proactive multilateral action. Several states including, notably, the United States—which remains the major global maritime security provider—stressed the importance of strengthening existing multilateral mechanisms, for instance, global information sharing.

Going further, Prime Minister Modi called for “a new framework” of cooperation. Yet, it was Russia that made the most proactive  proposal in calling for “establishing a special structure within the UN system that would directly deal with the issue of fighting maritime crime in various regions.”

Is there a need for a new structure? What’s at stake?

Does the United Nations require an institutional arrangement for maritime crime?

A core problem in the current response to blue crime, noted by Russia during the high-level debate, is the rising complexity and lack of coordination between mechanisms that have been set up at the regional level over the past decade. As our research shows, a proliferation of forums, meetings, and information sharing mechanisms has occurred. In the Western Indian Ocean alone, thirty-one different multilateral mechanisms are tasked with addressing blue crimes. Many of these groups, such as information sharing mechanisms, are informal and technical, others have an explicit link to the UNSC, such as the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia.

The proliferation not only entails risks of duplication of effort and of forum shopping—whereby actors only participate in the mechanisms that better suit their agenda, while sidelining others—it also implies that there is insufficient attention being paid to the global dimension of maritime security and a lack of sharing information and experience across regional oceans.

A debate is hence needed on whether or not creating a new UN structure is the best way forward, and what that structure could look like.

Commission, Committee, or Forum? What a new UN structure for maritime security might look like

Since creating new institutions often implies intricate questions around terms of reference and the reshuffling of mandates and responsibilities, the discussion should evaluate different options for a new body on blue crimes.

At a minimum, the Council could task the UN secretary-general to deliver an annual report on maritime security. This would be a significant step in order to identify emerging crimes and other issues of concern, raise awareness for the significance of maritime crime, spot gaps in provisions, and increase coordination and early response capacities. Such a report could draw on evidence provided by regional and international organizations—including the International Maritime Organization, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the European Union, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations—but also by nongovernmental organizations, such as Stable Seas, Safe Seas, Global Fishing Watch, and the Environmental Justice Foundation.

A more ambitious goal would be the development of an institutional structure that would work toward the coordination of information sharing, capacity building, and the exchange of best practices across regions. Institutions developed for peacebuilding, counterterrorism, and cybersecurity could provide templates here.

To better coordinate post-conflict and peacebuilding tasks, the UNSC—jointly with UN General Assembly (UNGA)—created the UN Peacebuilding Commission (PBC), an intergovernmental advisory body that is active in particular target countries but also facilitates the exchange of lessons and best practices across the UN system. Members are elected by the UNSC, the UNGA, and the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and also include the top providers of funding and peacekeepers to UN missions, as well as other invited stakeholders. Engagement from the PBC is sought voluntarily by member states which, alongside its broad membership, arguably allows the PBC to be a forum where more contentious issues can be raised.

Counterterrorism is addressed in a subsidiary body of the Council, the Counter-Terrorism Committee. The Committee works under the direct auspices of the Council and provides technical coordination, strategy development, and capacity building. This would be a second option to consider for addressing blue crimes. It would ensure Council oversight and will be easier to establish compared to a separate new institution.

Another option can be derived from cybersecurity, which has many parallels to maritime security in so far as it addresses a distinct space and is also recognized as a novel challenge. One of the main bodies that coordinates cybersecurity efforts, in particular capacity building, is the Global Forum on Cyber Expertise. While formally not a UN body it performs important global coordination functions, and the Council could call upon states to develop such a mechanism. One of its core strengths is the participation of industry actors. This could provide a useful template, given the importance of the industry and private security providers in addressing threats such as piracy. Many of the current regional informal maritime security coordinating bodies have industry as participants.  

Given the number of actors and the variety of issues involved in maritime security, identifying the right workable option—Commission, committee, or forum—is not an easy task. Yet, one could easily imagine a body that would have issue-specific subgroups (e.g. illegal fishing, piracy, smuggling) as well as regional ones (Western Indian Ocean, Strait of Hormuz, Gulf of Guinea) and thereby take over current coordination efforts in a more sustained manner.

A high-level panel as a first step

It is common practice at the UN that complex issues that require new thinking and the identification of scenarios for future institutional development are addressed by forming ad hoc high-level panels composed of elder statespeople and experts. This might be a viable first step to evaluate the above options. While ideally tasked by the UNGA and UNSC, such a panel could usefully be anchored in the UNODC secretariat, considering the major role that the organization plays in addressing transnational organized crime at sea and in capacity building.

Whatever course the UNSC takes in the future, the high-profile participation in the August 9 debate, including heads of state, proves the Council’s readiness to take new steps to address maritime security. The interstate dimension will not be easily delegated to a new structure, yet in fighting blue crime, Council members have shared objectives. It is time to start thinking about how a new approach can be realized.

Christian Bueger is a professor of international relations at the University of Copenhagen and one of the directors of SafeSeas. He tweets at @c_bueger.