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Maritime piracy: no time for complacency

MariTrace, 25 October 2022

Map showing the route and position of World Food Programme vessel MV New Island, delivering grain to Somalia
Position of MV New Island at 01:00h GMT, 25 October 2022, delivering grain to the port of Berbera. Heatmap indicates maritime crime hotspots, YTD.

As dawn rises on the winter season for piracy, the outlook appears calm. Worldwide, incidents of piracy appear to have fallen to their lowest reported levels since 1992 and the visible activities of multinational assistance operations such as EU NAVFOR seem to be more in the realm of patrol-and-assist (such as removing old, vulnerable vessels from risky areas) than hot pursuit.

Yet this is not the moment for complacency. The Gulf of Guinea continues to be plagued by incidents of kidnap for ransom and violent attacks on crews; it is also on an important corridor for the trafficking of people (to Europe via the Canary Islands) and narcotics (between South America and Europe). Similarly - and even while reported incidents of maritime crime are currently low compared with previous years - the strategic importance of the Horn of Africa for the criminal and commercial worlds alike has not diminished.

The continuing efforts of private maritime security companies and multinational maritime security alliances attest to the reality of the threat. Active collaboration must be sustained. EU strategy in the Gulf of Guinea (building on the Yaounde Architecture) relies on the active participation of coastal states, together with the full support of the maritime industry helped by information-sharing with e.g. the European Ship Owners Association (ECSA). Danish, French, Italian and Portuguese ships have been present in the Gulf of Guinea throughout 2022, in a rotating deployment intended to ensure at least one ship in the area over the course of eleven months. The strategic intention has been to validate the architecture of the EU’s Coordinated Maritime Presences (CMP) Concept, launched in January 2021. Partly modelled on NAVFOR / Atalanta, CMP is proposed to run until 2024, aiming to build and reinforce multilateral capacity in counter-piracy response within the region, through handover agreements that utilise national legal frameworks (where they exist) to pursue prosecutions. CMP also provides for an information-sharing platform (YARIS), linking the 27 maritime centres of the Yaoundé Architecture, and connects with MARSUR.

European navies have been present in the Horn of Africa since 2008, yet their influence is declining. Last December, the Government of Somalia agreed to extend the UN mandate for Atalanta, for just three months. Somalia wants the EU and other partners to reinforce and support the Somali national coast guard and navy, rather than policing the Horn of Africa. The presence of multinational actors in contested regions routinely provokes old tensions. The Nigerian Navy and NIMASA are the only empowered organisations in Nigeria tasked with maintaining security in Nigeria’s territorial waters and EEZ, so counter-piracy efforts by international actors - however well intentioned - can provoke criticism when they intervene (for example, as in the case of Danish frigate, Esbern Snare, in December 2021, which served to further reinforce support from European shipowners for coordinated efforts to secure the Gulf of Guinea).

At a moment when the immediate threat appears to be largely contained, security collaboration at sea is largely a human, not an institutional or technical challenge. The architectures built for cooperation and joint action ought not to be discarded just yet. In the maritime sphere, as in other security domains, productive collaboration takes many years to set in: actors take time to learn how to share information, with whom and when. Information-sharing platforms are just one activity among many in the tactics needed to build organisational and multilateral reflex in countering threats at sea and in port. While geo-strategic optics may be difficult to manage, multinational representation embarked on a joint mission does provide a foundation for building trust and 'learning how to know', under conditions of high stress, at moments when information exchange is most critical. These alliances serve much more than a commercial or military purpose.

During the pandemic - and long before global attention on the safe passage of vital food supplies out of the Black Sea - EU ships were helping to protect World Food Programme vessels on their journeys to Somalia. This work continues, for example ensuring the safe passage of World Food Programme vessel New Island, arrived at the Port of Berbera on 25 October 2022. To date, WFP vessels have delivered approximately 3 million metric tonnes of food protected by EU NAVFOR. These activities ought to shift the focus of productive attention away from statistics on cargo volumes and tensions over how a region is labelled, by whom and according to which metrics - to which critical services are actually enabled, for whom. Hope for the renewal of the Black Sea Grain Initiative next month draws attention to why international collaboration in counter-piracy remains so vitally important for the safety and security of vessels and their crew.

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