While the world’s been focused on the deteriorating security situation in and around Iraq over the past year, less attention been given to an improving situation in the waters adjacent to this war-torn region.
Last year no vessels were captured by pirates in the waters off Somalia, according to the International Maritime Organisation.
This caps off a trend that’s been emerging since 2011, and has been largely credited to better security precautions by ships and a strong international naval presence.
But those responsible for the effort are not claiming victory: they use descriptions like “suppressed” and warn that the trend is “easily reversed”.
That’s because governments supporting the anti-piracy effort might not see it as a high priority if piracy’s mistakenly described as “defeated”.
At the same time as pirate activity has been diminishing, we’ve seen another, similarly positive, trend: rising numbers of drug seizures in these waters by Western warships — primarily Canadian, Australian and British.
Since 2012, vessels belonging to the Combined Maritime Force have seized increasingly large volumes of Africa-bound heroin and cannabis. The overall catch is small compared to the volume of drugs being produced in Afghanistan and Pakistan — the 4600 tonnes of heroin seized on the Indian Ocean last year is less than 1 per cent of Afghan production.
It’s possible that the haul could become larger, but two things hamper the coalition force. The first is the lack of a counter-narcotics mandate. At present, the ships’ captains act against suspected drug-smugglers on the basis that drugs fund terrorism.
But trafficking drugs by sea is not a maritime crime of the same type as piracy, which is subject to universal jurisdiction. Universal jurisdiction effectively means that any warship can stop and board a suspected pirate vessel, and then hand the pirates over to any country for prosecution.
Under normal rules you can’t board a ship flying another country’s flag at sea, unless you first get that country’s permission. So with drug trafficking, coalition warships only board unflagged vessels in international waters. This means many smugglers avoid being stopped and searched.
Counter-drug activity is also hampered because there’s no legal infrastructure to prosecute smugglers. While there are arrangements with some African and Indian Ocean states to prosecute pirates, there’s no similarly fluid arrangement to try drug-runners. If drugs are found onboard, the coalition forces simply dump them into the sea, report it, and let the now lighter ship go on its way.
Still, this new line of action offers a real opportunity to build further habits of co-operation in the region and move the international and regional effort from the negative “counter-piracy” aim to a more positive “promoting security” one.
This would see Indian Ocean states, and nations supporting the current activity, collaborating on a new maritime security regime for the region. This new regime should accommodate sovereign rights and responsibilities, real-life capability to conduct maritime law enforcement, and the global interest in good order in the northwestern Indian Ocean.
In addition to the existing piracy and terrorism mission, the expanded regime could include drugs first, and then other problems such as environmental crime, illegal fishing, people-smuggling and search and rescue. It could provide suitable law enforcement arrangements — including information sharing — to make best use of the ships deployed off Somalia. The regime could include new arrangements to prosecute and imprison criminals.
It could build the capacity of regional states to enforce their own laws. This is critical because high levels of extra-regional involvement shouldn’t be a permanent feature of this regime.
Still, with a number of key global powers involved — including the US, EU, China and India — a broader co-operative maritime security regime should have the resources to work.
2015 is a good time to kickstart this effort. Australia, as the chair of the Indian Ocean Rim Association — IORA — is well placed to lead this co-operative agenda. And with Indonesia as the next chair, there’s a good chance of this agenda being continued in a practical, respectful and prospectively successful way.
Rob McLaughlin is co-director of the Centre for Military and Security Law at the Australian National University and David Connery is a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra. This article first appeared in The Australian.