Why the shipping industry needs to pay attention to recent UN debates

Screenshot of the August 9, 2021 virtual meeting

Posted on August 12, 2021 12:40 PM by

Christian Buger

Over the past two weeks, the United Nations Security Council has held two debates on maritime security. One was a discussion on August 6 of the recent incident in the Gulf of Oman, the drone attack on the MV Mercer Street which had two crew members killed. A major public debate on maritime security took place three days later. The Council has been proactive in matters of maritime security for some time, notably in combating piracy off the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Guinea. However, recent debates show that the Council is becoming more aware of maritime issues. There are at least five lessons for the maritime industry.

The MV debate Mercer Street attack, firstly, on documents that Council members are now paying great attention to security incidents at sea and threats to the freedom of navigation. Although there was no direct outcome of the debate, the fact that this debate took place less than a week after the attack indicates that we can expect the Council to monitor and respond to maritime incidents much faster and significantly than it has in the past.

The public debate on maritime security, secondly, has been remarkable in terms of the high level of representation. Maritime security was addressed at Heads of State level, with the Prime Minister of India, the Presidents of Russia and Kenya, among others, addressing the Council, while other members, such as the United States States and France, were represented by the Ministers of Foreign Affairs or Defense. This proves that, in the eyes of the Council, maritime security is now an absolute priority.

A wide range of issues were raised during the debate, ranging from threats to freedom of navigation to maritime terrorism, different forms of blue crime, including piracy, smuggling or illegal fishing, as well as climate change and maritime accidents. All of these issues do not directly concern the maritime industry. Indeed, the debate showed that the international community lacks a consensual understanding of which maritime security issues should be prioritized and whether it is economic or environmental concerns that need to be addressed urgently.

The vigilance of the Security Council also indicates that the center of gravity of the debate on maritime security is gradually shifting from the International Maritime Organization to New York. This implies not only that the maritime industry needs to consider what are its channels of communication with the UN Secretariat and members of the Council, but also how maritime industry associations might want to make their voices heard in the debates future.

One of the main proposals emerging from the public debate underlines this importance. Russian President Putin has called for a new institutional structure for maritime security, while Indian Prime Minister Modi has called for a new collaborative framework to be developed. While setting up a new structure, which may well involve a new United Nations body, will be a complicated process and one that will not be resolved quickly – as is usual at the UN level -, the maritime industry must ask itself how it wants to contribute to the debate.

A new United Nations commission, committee or forum for maritime security is unlikely to replace the various regional agreements, such as the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Countering Piracy and Armed Robbery in Against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP), but will rather complement it by coordinating the global level. In regional mechanisms, the maritime industry has a strong voice and is a proactive contributor. Concrete strategies will be needed on how the industry wishes to contribute to the new global process.

The new awareness of the international community for security at sea is certainly welcome, in particular to ensure the security of supply chains. As with the adoption of International Ship and Port Facility Security Code documents, new measures developed under the security program can be costly for the maritime industry. Paying particular attention and bringing the voice of the industry to New York is therefore essential.

Christian Bueger is a professor at the University of Copenhagen and one of the directors of SafeSeas.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.