About the Author: Gregory L. Garland serves as Media and Outreach Coordinator for the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of African Affairs.
For two days this month (March 16-17), I participated in meetings of the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS), comprised of 28 countries. On the first day, I headed the U.S. delegation to the Public Diplomacy Working Group, chaired by Egypt and gathered to coordinate public information efforts. The following day, I joined the broader Plenary Session, which heard reports from all four working groups. (The other three deal with operational coordination, legal questions, and outreach to the shipping industry.)
I’m new to multilateral diplomacy. My career has so far featured press conferences, civil society events, and much public speaking, but this week I started with the basics of multilateral procedure. Take, for example, the seemingly minor act of requesting an intervention (aka, comment). A colleague from the U.S. Coast Guard had to explain to me to turn the country name plate on its side to call the chair’s attention.
We were in Cairo because of Egypt's chairing the Public Diplomacy Working Group and as well as being host for the CGPCS. Working from 9:00 AM to 8:30 PM on both days, we broke for coffee and lunch, but continued with our own discussions deep into the night. As is the case with such international gatherings, the breaks really served as opportunities to speak directly with members of other delegations. At the end of the long days, even Cairo’s famous souvenir stores were closed.
A contact group is generally loosely structured and frequently governed by consensus. This flexibility and procedural informality make it a favored mechanism for crisis response, but it also encourages the very ambiguity and vagueness that produce extended discussions. One of these debates concerned the mandate of the Public Diplomacy Working Group. Some delegations urged the working group to act as a venue to address the "root causes" of Somali piracy – the economic and political conditions in Somalia itself. A number of delegations differed, noting this would go beyond the working group's mandate to coordinate public diplomacy. Furthermore, they pointed out that a separate Contact Group on Somalia already exists to deal with such on-shore issues. In fact, representatives of the UN Political Office for Somalia, based in Nairobi, attended the meeting and helpfully explained their own mandate. By late in the day, the Public Diplomacy Working Group had found compromise language that went into the recommendations presented the next day to the Plenary.
Nonetheless, there was a general appreciation for the contributions of many countries to the naval forces patrolling the seas off Somalia under UN Security Council Resolution 1851. On Tuesday, our own American head of delegation underscored the significant reduction in piracy over the past year. The most direct victim of piracy, the shipping industry, has responded fully on all fronts; several industry representatives actually attended the sessions as observers. The shippers’ application of higher standards of security and best practices are long-term solutions that pro-actively hinder piracy
Where was Somalia in all this? The new national unity government was represented by its resident Cairo ambassador, who linked piracy to conditions on land. A Somali civil society activist living in Nairobi was the first speaker on Monday and occupied the Somalia chair for the rest of the day. Yet, overall, it was the 28 different countries of the CGPCS who dominated. At best, this was mostly a gathering of non-Somalis talking about Somalia.
Throughout the discussions, I continued to marvel at this multilateral process as only a newcomer can. One arrangement in particular kept gnawing at me. The UN’s standard practice of seating member states in alphabetical order places the U.S. and U.K. side by side. Perhaps in the days of the U.S.S.R., it was less conspicuous, but the spectacle of the two largest delegations (other than the host Egyptians) seated together couldn’t help but to draw the attention of the rest of the large room. Americans and Britons easily conversed in their mutual native tongue throughout the proceedings and during breaks. The many delegations directly across the table were thus treated to a constant vision of Anglo-American camaraderie, which others might interpret more negatively. It took extra effort for us to reach out to those who were sitting further away, but we certainly did so, especially during breaks in the meetings.
What has become of the Cairo meeting? Probably most important is the inclusion of an ever-growing number of countries in the coordinating process. With Egypt in the lead, the interests of states in the region became clear, though most have not contributed units to the patrols off the Somali coast that have captured so much of the world's attention. Egypt itself is a major regional power, a leading Muslim nation, and both Arab and African. Moreover, it is a major victim of piracy as Suez Canal revenues decline with the re-routing of shipping around the Cape of Good Hope. The Public Diplomacy Working Group ended up by taking these interests and perspectives into account. With more work, we may agree on a way to speak with one voice. That would be no mean accomplishment either in multilateral politics or in the rough neighborhood where the Middle East meets the Horn of Africa.
Editor's Note: Read more about multilateral diplomacy and the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia.