Christian Bueger

Debating the future of maritime security in the Western Indian Ocean

What’s the state of progress and arising challenges for maritime security in the Western Indian Ocean? From 14.-16.11. I had the pleasure to follow large parts of a ministerial conference addressing this issue in Mauritius online. I chaired one session on the first day and provided comments in the concluding sessions.

Below is the write up of my intervention:

Towards holistic maritime security: Finetuning the maritime security system in the Western Indian Ocean

Maritime security solutions in the Western Indian Ocean have made significant progress. A decade after the crisis caused by piracy attacks in the region, a sustainable and well-functioning maritime security structure has been built.

While often referred to as a maritime security ‘architecture’, this term seems no longer appropriate. An architecture is a metaphor that points to a project in planning and construction. Maritime security has progressed in the region to a degree, that it is now better to refer to a ‘system’ – a system that needs to be finetuned and improved, but which has been well established.

The key components of the regional maritime security system

The Western Indian Ocean Maritime Security System (WIOMSS) is composed of four components:

  • 1) The Regional Maritime Information Fusion Centre (RMIFC), based in Madagascar, which provides Maritime Domain Awareness services to ensure that suspicious activity at sea and hot spots and trends are identified,
  • 2) The Regional Centre for Operational Coordination (RCOC), based in Seychelles, which organizes operational responses and ensures that regional states and international actors work concertedly to address threats in preventive and reactive maritime security operations
  • 3) The regular Ministerial Conference on Maritime Security and Safety in the Western Indian Ocean, organized by Mauritius, which evaluates progress on a political level and ensures high level commitment and strategic alignment between states.
  • 4) The Djibouti Code of Conduct (Jeddah Amendments) process, facilitated by the International Maritime Organization, which develops norms and technical standards for national agencies and operators, and assists in coordinating capacity building support on the national level.

Over the past decade, each of the components has found its role in the region, improved its working practice and has found more and more effective ways of working together. Yet, there is a need for finetuning and enhancing the effectivity of the system in the light of pressing challenges.

Challenge 1: Blue crimes continue to be on the rise, stronger operations at sea are needed
For the first three quarters of 2023 alone, the RMIFC has recorded 741 maritime security events. Challenges, such as smuggling, illicit fishing, irregular migration remain persistent, calling for a strong deterrent at sea, as well as rapid intelligence informed operations at sea. RMIFC and RCOC need smooth and fast communication channels, and overall the amount of assets available for RCOC operations is still too limited.

Challenge 2: Holistic maritime security approaches
If maritime security debates and responses are often firmly focused on different expressions of blue crime, the contemporary agenda is more extensive:

  • Shipping risks, stretching from smaller everyday pollution incidents to larger accidents, such as the 2021 Wakashio oil spill off Mauritius, threaten biodiversity and blue economy efforts and can undermine marine conservation and restoration efforts substantially.
  • Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) remain paper parks, if rules are not appropriately enforced in these zones. Providing enforcement in MPAs is vital for conservation and restoration.
  • Critical maritime infrastructures, such as subsea data cables, offshore wind and solar farms are vital for economic development and the green energy transition and their protection falls under the maritime security agenda.
  • Climate change risks are a potential threat multiplier, but also put pressure on maritime security agencies, and call for disaster response capabilities, and other mitigation and adaptation measures.

States with limited capacities in particular cannot deal with such challenges through separate processes. In an innovative way, WIOMSS has integrated such concerns. To do so, it however has to deal with a substantial number of international mechanisms, including the regional seas convention, or UN processes in shipping, disaster risk, and marine conservation. Ensuring that these do not lead to separate mechanisms (e.g. in disaster risk reduction), and cause fragmentation and duplication will have to be a main focus of WIOMSS.

Challenge 3: Legacy institutions and regional overlap
Three institutional mechanisms are legacy instruments from the fight against piracy in the region, their purpose, function and contribution to WIOMSS is unclear. This includes the former Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast off Somalia – recently renamed to Contact Group on Illicit Maritime Activities – the Shared Awareness and Deconfliction mechanism (SHADE), and the Maritime Security Center Horn of Africa (MSCHoA). These mechanisms have been important to coordinate the presence of international navies, the global shipping industry, and external capacity building support in the past, revisiting their contribution for WIOMSS is now urgent.
Simultaneously a discussion is required how those institutions that have a broader regional focus on the Indian Ocean, such as India’s Information Fusion Center Indian Ocean, or the work of the Indian Ocean Rim Association and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium feed into and strengthen WIOMSS.
The WIOMSS states need to request answers from those leading these additional mechanisms concerning there long-term and strategic contributions.

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