Maritime security is being undermined at an alarming pace by challenges around contested boundaries, the depletion of natural resources and armed attacks — from piracy to terrorism — senior United Nations officials told the Security Council today, as world leaders adopted a presidential statement outlining their concerns over the increasing frequency of such events.
In a presidential statement (document S/PRST/2021/15) presented by the Prime Minister of India, Council President for August, the 15-member organ noted the problem of transnational organized crimes committed at sea — including illicit trafficking in narcotic drugs, smuggling of migrants and illicit trafficking in firearms — as well as the “deplorable” loss of life and adverse impact on international trade stemming from such activities.
Against that backdrop, it emphasized through the statement the importance of safeguarding the legitimate uses of the oceans, lives of people at sea and security of coastal communities, affirming that international law — reflected in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, among other global instruments — provides the legal framework for combating these illicit activities.
It called on Member States to implement the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code and Chapter XI-2 of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, and to work with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to promote safe and secure shipping while ensuring freedom of navigation. Member States, by other terms, should also consider ratifying, acceding to and implementing the 2000 United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and the Protocols thereto, and designate authorities to take appropriate measures in accordance with these conventions.
At the meeting’s outset, the Council observed a moment of silence in tribute to the lives lost during the pandemic.
Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, Chef de Cabinet to United Nations Secretary‑General António Guterres, said threats related to maritime security affect people in every country — coastal and landlocked alike. For more than 3 billion people — the vast majority in developing countries — the issue takes on a special urgency, as they count on the oceans and seas for their daily social and cultural life, and for their livelihoods. Yet, maritime security is being undermined at alarming levels, she said, from challenges around contested boundaries and navigation routes that do not conform to international law, to the depletion of natural resources — including illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing — to armed attacks and crimes at sea, such as piracy, robbery and terrorist acts.
Noting that the first half of 2020 saw a nearly 20 per cent increase year on year in reported acts of piracy and armed robbery against ships worldwide, she said this happened despite an overall decrease in the volume of maritime traffic, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In Asia, such incidents nearly doubled. Noting that West Africa, the Straits of Malacca and Singapore, and the South China Sea were most affected by piracy and armed robbery against ships, she said the unprecedented levels of insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea are particularly concerning, while maritime insecurity is compounding the terrorist threat emerging from the Sahel.
“These growing and interlinked threats call out for a truly global and integrated response,” she emphasized. She advocated a response that addresses these challenges in the immediate term — and tackles their root causes, including poverty, a lack of alternative livelihoods, insecurity and weak governance structures. The response should bring together everyone with a stake in maritime spaces — from Governments and regional groups, to shipping companies, the fishing and extraction industries, those charged with keeping maritime spaces secure, and as always, the people living in coastal communities who count on the ocean for their livelihoods and well-being.
She pointed to the international legal regime for maritime security, underpinned by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, as “the good news”, stressing that the Convention and related instruments strike a “careful balance” between States’ sovereign rights, jurisdiction and freedoms, and their duties and obligations. However, this framework is only as strong as countries’ commitment to full and effective implementation. “We need to translate commitment into action,” she stressed. All States must live up to their obligations and resolve any differences in relation to maritime security, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.
She expressed support for regional initiatives to fight piracy off Somalia’s coast, end armed robbery against ships in Asia and tackle insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea, also highlighting the United Nations work with the African Union and Arab States to strengthen security in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. “Partners are coming together like never before to strengthen maritime security,” she said. “By lending your voice and support to these initiatives, this Council can draw increased attention and action to these efforts.”
Finally, the global response must include working with people most affected by maritime security challenges, she said. Across the United Nations system, the Organization is working with impoverished coastal communities to develop new opportunities for decent and sustainable work, through technical assistance and capacity-building. Throughout such efforts, the global response must recognize the link between security and sustainability. “Without security, the sustainable and responsible development of the oceans and its resources is impossible,” she assured. “We cannot afford to squander the future of this wondrous natural gift, nor the futures of the billions of people who rely on it.”
Ghada Fathi Waly, Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), welcomed the Council presidency’s high-level attention to the issue of maritime security and the strong support for her office in the presidential statement. Piracy and organized crimes are increasingly affecting maritime activities, with terrorism, drug and human trafficking, illegal fishing and other crimes all posing a challenge to peace and security. In 2020, for instance, a record volume of cocaine was seized. UNODC has been providing support to address these transnational challenges since 2009. Its programme has expanded from addressing the issue of Somali piracy to a broader operation with a budget of $230 million in support of capacity-building in 26 Member States. Yet, as challenges continue to grow, the international response must grow, as well, she said, welcoming today’s debate as an opportunity to build momentum.
Outlining areas of action, she called for more effective implementation of legal instruments, including Security Council resolutions, such as resolution 2551 (2020), as well as international treaties, such as the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. Sharing intelligence among nations is also key, she said, also stressing the importance of building partnerships. UNODC is forging cooperation in the Indian Ocean, Caribbean, South‑East Asia and other areas to build resilience. It also works closely with partners, including IMO, International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) and security companies. Calling on Member States to use technology to address problems, she underscored the need to tackle root causes of maritime insecurity, pointing out that pirates and organized crime groups exploit poverty. There is no security without development, she said, calling for a holistic approach, greater investment and political commitment.
Christophe Lutundula Apala Pen’apala, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, speaking on behalf of President Felix-Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo in his capacity as Chairperson of the African Union, said optimal maritime security requires tackling root causes: lack of adapted equipment and training; using trash vessels at sea; and dumping materials that lead to pollution. International cooperation, led by regional efforts, remains the most appropriate means to address this. As such, African Union member States adopted the African Charter on Maritime Security, known as the Lome Charter, as no one country can tackle these problems alone. More than two thirds of the world is covered by water and currently, improvements are needed to bring about a fundamental change, he said, citing Africa’s involvement in maritime trade and industry. However, progress depends on resolving security issues, including those affecting the Guinea Gulf and the Somali basin, which continue to threaten international peace and stability. Such threats include transnational crimes, drugs, human and weapons trafficking, piracy, theft of oil, illegal migration and natural hazards. Some States have deployed units to support the anti-piracy efforts of coastal nations, he said, highlighting the Lome Charter’s goal: to address crime and prevent and eradicate illegal activities by strengthening regional cooperation and collaboration, including with the United Nations. Appropriate technology and enhanced communication between the private sector and Governments are part of efforts to develop an African security strategy in the coming years, he said, emphasizing that only international cooperation can help to strengthen maritime security on his continent.
In the ensuing debate, Heads of State and Government from around the world underscored the vital importance of maintaining global maritime security and the rules-based order underpinning it, with many drawing attention to specific hotspot areas and expressing support for a robust cooperation framework.