About the Author: David McKeeby is a Public Affairs Specialist in the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs.
Piracy may have largely dropped out of the headlines here in the United States, but these armed gangs at sea remain a serious threat to global shipping and humanitarian aid transiting the Horn of Africa.
On May 29, representatives from over 30 countries and international organizations participating in the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia met at the United Nations headquarters in New York City. I got to come along for the ride ─ my first time as part of an official U.S. diplomatic delegation! Here’s what happened...
First, let me tell you a couple of things about the Contact Group. Think of it as kind of a diplomatic “pick-up” team ─ 28 countries and six international organizations (the African Union, the Arab League, the European Union, the International Maritime Organization, NATO, and the UN Secretariat) who have created an informal forum to share information and coordinate efforts against piracy.
The Contact Group gives countries a new way to come together to creatively use what Secretary Clinton calls “smart power” to coordinate a broad range of diplomatic and security efforts to confront piracy in the short to medium term, while parallel international development initiatives to bring stability to Somalia continue in other multilateral bodies, such as the United Nations International Contact Group on Somalia.
Most of the Contact Group’s work is done in its four working groups:
• Military and Operational Coordination, Information Sharing, and Capacity Building, chaired by the United Kingdom;
• Judicial Issues, chaired by Denmark;
• Commercial Industry Coordination, chaired by the United States; and
• Public Information, chaired by Egypt.
Two big developments came out of the Contact Group meeting:
• The New York Declaration: While multinational naval patrols can help improve security conditions, the pirate “danger zone” covers an area of ocean four times the size of Texas ─ there simply aren’t enough naval ships in the entire world to protect all of it! Therefore, private industry has a vital role in protecting their ships from attempted boarding by pirates. During the meeting, representatives from Panama, Liberia, the Bahamas, and the Marshall Islands signed a statement saying that they will require all ships registered in their countries to do just that ─ a significant step because the maritime registries of these four countries account for over half of the world’s shipping!
• A New International Trust Fund: Bringing piracy suspects to justice can require unusual expenses, such as when witnesses from the ship’s country have to testify in another country where a trial is taking place. The Contact Group endorsed the creation of an International Trust Fund with administrative help by the United Nations to help defray the expenses associated with the prosecution of suspected pirates, as well as other activities related to combating piracy.
Bottom line, many countries may be affected in a single pirate attack ─ from the owners of the vessel to the country in which the ship is registered, and from where the ship’s cargo is being transported to the crew’s countries of citizenship. Each has a responsibility to take action against piracy as surely as all countries ultimately bear the burden of piracy in the form of increased risk to global shipping and humanitarian aid deliveries.
Each Contact Group participant can choose their contribution, be it naval vessels, hosting prosecutions of suspected pirates, contributing to the new international trust fund, or a combination of the above. A lot of work remains ahead, but the Contact Group meeting marked solid progress against a shared security challenge.