Tag Archives: Shipping

Dangerous Waters: The Situation in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait

By James Pothecary

Introduction

On 25 October 2016, the Spanish-flagged merchant tanker Galicia Spirit came under fire when a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) was fired at it from a small speedboat that had interdicted the vessel. The tanker was then attacked with small arms fire. The merchant vessel escaped catastrophic damage, and was able to continue its journey onward. However, only two days later, the liquefied natural gas (LNG) tanker Melati Satu was attacked in the same area, also with RPGs. The Tuvalu-flagged Melati Satu’s crew sent out a distress call, were rescued by a Saudi Arabian naval vessel, and were subsequently escorted to safety. Both ships had been traversing the Bab el-Mandeb strait between south-western Yemen and north-eastern Djibouti. This small waterway must be negotiated to access or egress the Egyptian-controlled Suez Canal, which sits at the northern end of the Red Sea.

In a related development, throughout October this year there were several attacks on U.S. warships in or near the Bab el-Mandeb from sites along the Yemeni coastline. The USS Mason and USS Ponce both came under attack by assailants of unconfirmed origin, forcing the warships to deploy anti-missile countermeasures and prompting U.S. forces to launch cruise missile strikes against targets in Yemen.

The Question of Responsibility

The most prominent non-state armed group (NSAG) operating in Yemeni territory contiguous to the Bab el-Mandeb is the Houthi rebel movement, which is opposed to the internationally recognized government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur. It is not definitively known whether the speedboats that attacked merchant shipping were rebel forces or pirates. Furthermore, although the attacks on U.S. warships came from rebel-held territory and the U.S. responded by attacking rebel installations, Houthi officials denied involvement. However, Houthi forces had previously claimed responsibility for a 1 October 2016 missile attack on HSV-2 Swift, a United Arab Emirates (UAE)-flagged vessel, which was extensively damaged in the incident, and rendered inoperable. Due to the similarity of the tactics involved, as well as the fact these attacks occurred off the Yemeni coast, Allan & Associates (A2) assesses that Houthi forces were likely responsible for the attacks on vessels in the Bab el-Mandeb strait.

Footage of attack on HSV-2 Swift

Security Risks: The Threat to Shipping

The attackers’ identities are of secondary importance, however, compared to the risk that the attacks themselves represent. The implications of a declining security environment in the Bab el-Mandeb are substantial. The strait is one of a few strategic maritime choke points worldwide, a narrow but vital waterway that sea traffic must be able to navigate for maritime trade to function effectively. The Bab el-Mandeb is, at its narrowest point, only 29km across, and therefore even small craft launched from the Yemeni coast will be able to interdict all traffic passing through it. Almost all maritime trade between Europe and Asia, approximately USD700 billion annually, passes through this narrow waterway. Any security threats in this location would disproportionally affect global maritime trade routes and the security of sea lines of communication. As maritime shipping is approximately 90 percent of how the world’s goods are transported, interference at these choke points is a serious threat to international business.

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The Bab el-Mandeb Strait (Google Earth)

In April 2015, the United States Energy Information Administration estimated that 4.7 million barrels of crude oil and petroleum passed through the strait daily in the previous year. All traffic through the Suez Canal, the quickest route for European shipping to reach Asia, must pass through Bab el-Mandeb to reach the Gulf of Aden, and subsequently the Indian Ocean. In March of this year alone, 1,454,000 metric tons of shipping, carried on 80,495 vessels, transited the Suez Canal. A security threat in the Bab el-Mandeb, therefore, will have serious economic consequences for global trade, and could pose significant problems both for merchant fleets and for the companies that rely on their goods and commodities. Shipping lines must either re-route away from the Red Sea for Europe-Asia routes, or continue to use the strait at increased cost and risk. 

Business Risks: The Dilemma of Re-Routing

The quickest alternative route for European-Asian traffic, circumnavigating Africa via the Cape of Good Hope, would add at least 3,000 nautical miles to shipping. The additional time it will take to cover this route means vessels can fit in fewer trips, and therefore earn less revenue than they could otherwise in the one-year outlook. Although this cost is somewhat offset by the currently low price of crude oil, this still represents a substantial business risk to shipping companies, which could see their revenues and profits decline. Even with low oil prices, additional costs will have to be borne by maritime companies due to wage payments for at-sea staff, and increased distances will increase the amount of shipboard and dockyard maintenance required to keep vessels seaworthy.

However, even if merchant vessels brave the strait, they will still face substantial additional costs. These range from higher insurance premiums, to the cost of close-protection deployments on-board, and possibly additional payments to employees to compensate for the heightened levels of risk. Furthermore, if future attacks manage to cause substantial damage or loss of life on a civilian vessel, maritime logistics operators will be at risk of legal consequences on the grounds of failure to ensure adequate duty-of-care for their crews. Until the situation in the strait normalizes, merchant shipping must cover increased costs regardless of whether they choose to traverse the Bab el-Mandeb.

Ancillary Risks: The Limits of a Naval Response

The economic and security risks to shipping companies are compounded by the difficulty naval forces will have in neutralizing the threat in the Bab el-Mandeb. That said, major naval powers have seriously responded to the escalating threat in the strait. The U.S. Navy has already reinforced its presence in the surrounding area, and it is likely that the U.K. Maritime Component Command, which controls operations in Middle Eastern waters, will deploy additional assets to the region imminently.

The use of speedboats, which are quick, difficult to detect, and hard to interdict, presents challenges to even major naval powers operating in the region. Furthermore, the use of coastal sites to launch attacks on U.S. warships complicates military responses as the extremely poor security environment in southwest Yemen means that small teams could easily strike shipping and disappear before naval units can respond. 

If it is confirmed that Houthi rebel forces are behind the incidents, any concerted naval action in the area will face determined resistance. Unlike the Somali pirates of the late 2000s, Houthi fighters are ideologically motivated, trained, battle-hardened, and well-armed. Moreover, they have freedom of movement in areas of south-western Yemen under their control. While international naval power, supported by air power and special forces, will likely be able to contain the threat, full elimination of Houthi capability is an unrealistic objective without substantially more committed resourcing

Therefore, the difficulties of a naval response preclude an easy solution to the crisis and therefore increase the risk facing civilian merchant shipping operators. This is because it is unlikely a military solution will be sufficient in itself to quickly neutralize the attackers and restore security.

Security Recommendations for Merchant Shipping

A2 recommends that maritime logistics and security managers consider the southern Red Sea and Gulf of Aden a high-threat area until the situation stabilizes, and this should be immediately communicated to relevant bridge officers. Shipping that continues to ply this route in the interim should undertake mitigatory strategies.

This includes increasing ship speed, when possible traversing only during daylight hours, enhancing all watchkeeping procedures, and ensuring damage-control crews are kept on stand-by. Contact with international naval forces in the area should be maintained at all times. Maritime security officers should be considered while close to Yemeni waters. Security officers could be taken on-board at Egypt, Madagascar, the Maldives, or Oman depending on shipping route, to keep costs minimal. Maritime operators should also ensure ship crews are trained on actions to take in the event of coming under RPG or small-arms fire.

Mohamed Dahir/AFP/Getty Images
A militant stands by on a beach as a commercial vessel transits nearby. (Mohamed Dahir/AFP/Getty Images)

Slow vessels with low freeboards which lack the ability to evade potential attack should consider re-routing. This will include small pleasure craft as private individuals are very unlikely to have the training or resources to mitigate the potential threat. Due to the additional transportation time involved with this approach,render re-routing a last-resort measure, however.

A2 reminds managers considering deploying armed security personnel to obey all relevant national legislation pertaining to the ownership and use of weapons by civilians in order to avoid potential legal reprisals from national coastguard and law enforcement agencies.

Conclusion

The situation in the strait is likely to escalate, leaving both naval and civilian vessels at risk. The seriousness of this is compounded by the trouble naval forces will have in effectively responding to the asymmetric threat. Shipping companies therefore must make a cost-benefit analysis between continuing to use the strait or re-routing around the African coastline and consider the risks of each approach. A2 recommends maritime logistics entities consider the above security advice, and prepare for  further deterioration in the security environment of the Bab el-Mandeb. 

James Pothecary is a Political Risk Analyst specializing in the Middle East with Allan & Associates, an international security consultancy which provides a range of protective services including political and security risk assessments, security policy design and crisis management response.

Feature Image: HSV-2 Swift exhibiting damage after being struck by an anti-ship missile launched from the Yemeni coast. (PLG WAM)

Unsafe Mixed Migration by Sea: The Case of the Mediterranean Region

By Evmorfia-Chrysovalantou Seiti

The Journey for a Better Life

“Migration has been a part of history since the beginning of mankind.”[1] Wars, famine, poverty, political or religious persecution, natural disasters, armed conflicts and many other threats to human security urge people to move, often forcing them to share the same routes and means.[2] Why is this journey unsafe? These people are travelling in unseaworthy boats to find safer and improved living conditions, although many of these people, due to the sometimes long journeys, poor weather conditions, and the bad infrastructure of the boats, are losing their lives at sea. Considering that most migrants had chosen to cross the borders by land, international and regional actors intensified their land operations, leading to a reciprocal increase in the percentage of migration by sea.

Unsafe mixed migration differs from migration in general because in the case of mixed migration there is variety of reasons why people are moving away although they share the same routes, modes of travel and vessels. It is considered unsafe due to the fact that people travel through extremely dangerous passages and in extremely precarious situations. Considering these factors, unsafe mixed migration is a multidimensional problem that requires multidimensional solutions. It should not be ignored that this issue has a social, economic, political and geopolitical nature. In order to bring about viable solutions, a collaborative effort that incorporates all of the stakeholders contributing effectively in the management of this challenge is necessary.

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Migrants crowd the deck of their wooden boat off the coast of Libya. Photograph: Reuters.

It should be pointed out that all ships carrying migrants are subject to the rescue at sea obligations by the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and Search and Rescue (SAR) Conventions, and ship masters and governments are committed to transfer endangered migrants to a safe place. Governments, regional and international organizations, including the European Union, African Union, International Maritime Organization, and International Organization for Migration, as well as the shipping community, should collaborate on measures to prevent the future loss of lives of migrants at sea. This article will analyze the phenomenon of unsafe mixed migration in the Mediterranean and the efforts made by international and regional actors.

Efforts Taken by International and Regional Actors

International Maritime Organization

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has actively participated in the hotly debated topic of unsafe mixed migration and the maritime issues that have arisen from it, such as safety of life at sea and search and rescue. IMO highlighted the importance of close cooperation among the regional and international stakeholders in the regional migrant problem. IMO is actively addressing these mixed migrant issues within its own committees as well as in joint meetings with UN partners and other relevant international organizations by updating and developing guidance for shipmasters and governments in order to efficiently manage unsafe mixed migration.

As a UN agency with responsibility for safety at sea and the legal framework surrounding search and rescue, IMO amended SOLAS and SAR Conventions and their associated guidelines after the Tampa affair in August 2001. These changes can play a crucial role in promoting effective cooperation between United Nations agencies, international organizations, nongovernmental organizations, governments, and the shipping industry.

Another of IMO’s significant contributions to resolving the issue of unsafe mixed migration is its guidance regarding rescue at sea situations. The guidance includes legal provisions on practical procedures as well as measures to ensure the prompt disembarkation of rescued people and the respect of their specific needs. This guidance, created in cooperation with the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) and the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), has appealed to ship owners, governments, insurance companies and other interested parties involved in rescue at sea situations. Recently, in November 2015, the International Chamber of Shipping submitted “Measures to protect the safety of persons rescued at sea,” which provides guidance for large-scale rescue operations at sea, ensuring the safety and security of seafarers and rescued persons. Also, the document provides information on the second edition of the Guidance and supersedes the first edition of the Industry Guidance.

The second edition of the Industry Guidance is supported by the European Community Shipowners’ Associations, Asia Shipowners’ Forum, International Transport Workers’ Federation, Cruise Lines International Association, International Association of Dry Cargo Owners, International Association of Independent Tanker Owners, International Parcel Tankers Association and the International Ship Managers’ Association. Because the “shipping community is not designed for rescuing hundred of thousands of people drifting on hundreds of small, unseaworthy boats left in shipping lanes,” this guidance is “intended to help shipping companies identify and address particular issues that their ships may face when required to conduct a large scale rescue.” What should be emphasized is that this guidance is purely advisory and not mandatory.

All in all, the IMO recognizes the importance of “a close cooperation among several other bodies and UN agencies such as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the International Organization of Migration, Interpol, the African Union and the European Commission, and the Economic Commission of Africa and for Europe.”

European Union

Regarding the EU perspective, in the meeting of Foreign Affairs Ministers in Luxembourg in 2015, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Mrs. Federica Mogherini, highlighted that the EU’s external action should be coherent, substantial, and consistent. The EU has legal and moral duties in this crisis, and this situation is not going to affect one or another state but all of the EU member states. Also, she mentioned that this is not a regional crisis but a global crisis and stated that the EU should strengthen the cooperation of member states without any kind of “blame game” among them.

Mrs. Mogherini stated that the EU should enhance cooperation in five different elements: firstly providing protection to those people who need international protection; ensuring the management of borders; fighting against smugglers’ and traffickers’ networks; strengthening partnerships with third countries; and last but not least, taking efforts to work on root causes. This final objective maybe a long-term effort, but it is crucial to establish the rule of law and stability in the countries of origin.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel, center right, listens to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker , center left, as they arrive for an emergency EU heads of state summit on the migrant crisis at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

On 18 May 2015 the EU decided to create a naval force to prevent human smuggling in the Mediterranean. This naval power is a part of the broader approach to avoid losing human lives in the Mediterranean Sea. The joint meeting of foreign and defense ministers discussed the Common Defence and Security Policy and tried to make the CSDP stronger and more effective in view of the security challenges in Europe, specifically crises such as Syria and Ukraine.

The EU Naval Force-Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR MED) aims to put an end to the business model of smugglers and traffickers. The operation is based in Rome, led by Italian Rear Admiral Enrico Credendino, and operates in the South and Central Mediterranean and in cooperation with Libyan authorities. The operation will surveil and evaluate the networks of smugglers in the first phase, followed by the search and seizure of traffickers’ profit, and always within the context of international law. Mrs.  Mogherini said the decision to establish a naval force was part of a comprehensive approach to solve the migration crisis in the Mediterranean. She also stressed that the EU will work with African and Arab countries and partners to help address the causal factors of the migration crisis in the Mediterranean region.

International Organization for Migration

In a joint statement from IMO Secretary-General Koji Sekimizu and IOM Director-General William L. Swing on enhanced cooperation and collaboration between the two organizations, the leaders confirmed their close cooperation in order to manage unsafe mixed migration and reemphasized the cooperation between the two organizations originally agreed to in 1974. The IMO Secretary General and IOM Director General recognized that this situation consists of a humanitarian crisis and requires global action. The two organizations agreed upon seven points including an interagency platform for information sharing, collaboration with other interested agencies, promotion of the provisions of SOLAS, SAR and Facilitation of International Maritime Traffic (FAL) Conventions and international migration law, support of the relevant technical cooperation programs of each organization, the setup of technical or advisory bodies, facilitation of discussions to find solutions to unsafe migration by sea. Additionally, they urged the international community to take robust measures against human smugglers who operate without fear or remorse and who deliberately and knowingly endanger the lives of thousands of migrants at sea.[3]

Regarding the EU efforts, IOM expressed its satisfaction regarding the organization’s recommendations which became part of the proposals made by the European Commission to address the crisis of migration in the Mediterranean. These recommendations concern the equal responsibility of all EU member states in the issue of asylum seekers. In addition, the reforms of the European asylum system as described in the plan of the Commission were welcomed by the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on International Migration and Development, Mr. Peter Sutherland. Mr. Sutherland also stated in regard to the plan that he believes the resettlement goal of 20,000 immigrants will be increased over time and that the EU will continue to expand safe routes providing assistance to asylum seekers and migrants.

According to Director-General of IOM William Lacy Swing, the proposed changes as expressed by the newly established “European Agenda for Migration” reflect the serious and constructive approach to a challenge that IOM expects to continue. These initiatives are promising for maintaining safe, legal migration routes and improving access to international protection.

In addition, the proposed tripling of the Triton budget will expand the area of operations beyond the current limit of 30 miles and will expand its activities into more dangerous migrant and smuggling routes to help save lives of migrants in high seas. FRONTEX Joint Operation Triton concerns the management of migration in the Central Mediterranean.

LÉ Eithne rescuing migrants as part of Operation Triton in June 2015.
LÉ Eithne rescuing migrants as part of Operation Triton in June 2015.

The IOM has expressed its concerns regarding the military operations conducted in the region, arguing that they can further risk the lives of migrants. This does not mean that the IOM does not recognize the necessity of strong proof of the EU’s determination and its willingness to proceed to substantive actions to eliminate this serious challenge.

The IOM states it is ready to contribute to the development of viable migration policies that will improve the legal “channels” for people seeking work and asylum. IOM believes that sound labor migration policy is the key to a more competitive Europe. Another aspect highlighted by the IOM is cooperation with migrants before they reach the Mediterranean and the support of countries of transit which bear the brunt of those people displaced by conflict and human rights violations. Niger, for example, is a key transit point for migrants heading to Europe. The Commission plan aims for IOM and UNHCR to create “a pilot multi-purpose centre” in the country, which will provide information on the dangers ahead, protection from exploitation and identification of those in need of resettlement, temporary protection, and other options.

African Union

In October 2014 the African Union launched the AU-HOA Initiative known as the Khartoum Process. The AU Regional Ministerial Conference in collaboration with the Government of the Sudan, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the IOM, as well as ministers from more than 15 source, transit, and destination countries of migration took part in the initiative’s launch in Khartoum, Sudan. The AU-HOA Regional Ministerial Conference calls for a stronger collaborative approach to tackle human trafficking and smuggling in the Horn of Africa. In his opening remarks, the African Union Commission (AUC) Director of Social Affairs, Dr. Olawale Maiyegun, affirmed on the AU’s continued commitment towards facing the challenges of trafficking and helping its member states address this issue. Dr. Maiyegun highlighted the framework that the African Union adopted and initiated in this regard, including the Ouagadougou Action Plan, the Migration Policy Framework for Africa in 2006, and the African Union Commission Initiative against trafficking (AU.COMMIT) in 2009.

The Second African Union Regional Conference on Human Trafficking and Smuggling in the Horn of Africa was held in Sharm El-Sheikh on 13 and 14 September 2015, and it aimed to prepare the ground for the global summit of migration which took place in Valetta on 11 and 12 November 2015. The discussion focused on migration issues, providing assistance to partner countries, strengthening international cooperation, and better targeting of available resources.

As illustrated by the Khartoum Declaration on AU-HOA Initiative on Human Trafficking and Smuggling of Migrants, ministers and other representatives of the participating African countries agreed to a range of measures including the implementation of provisions of other relevant regional and international schemes of cooperation. They agreed that refugees should be treated in accordance with these provisions and conventions and they should examine the root causes that make people vulnerable to human trafficking and smuggling as well as ways to manage the issue from its roots. This may entail raising public awareness to broadening policies and programs towards economic and social development, human rights, and improving the rule of law and education. In order to combat traffickers and smugglers there is a provision for training and technical support in the origin, transit and destination countries in order to develop and strengthen the capacity of law enforcement. Regarding the humanitarian assistance, states would provide specialized assistance and services for the physical, psychological and social recovery and rehabilitation of trafficked persons and abused smuggled migrants.

ILO-presenting
ILO’s Cynthia Samuel-Olonjuwon presenting on Labour Migration Governance for Development and Integration in Africa. © IOM/Craig Murphy 2014.

All things considered, these measures and provisions cannot be implemented if there is a lack of cooperation, coordination, and support among all relevant stakeholders, including regional and international organizations, especially UNHCR, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), International Labour Organization (ILO) and IOM as well as civil society organizations and the private sector.

The Khartoum Process is crucial because it “provides a political forum for facilitating the more practical measures that must be accomplished at international, regional, and national levels.” The African Union aims to develop the African Union Border Programme (AUBP) in order to achieve these measures and goals. The AU is formulating policies that could build on the AU Convention on Cross-Border Cooperation, also known as the Niamey Convention. This Convention serves as the legal instrument of the AUBP. This programme addresses issues as border security, trade migration, infrastructure and communication on border matters, aiming at conflict prevention. The Declaration on the African Union Border Programme and its Implementation Modalities was adopted by the African Ministers in June 2007.[4]

Quo Vadis?

The key factor in this challenge is to eradicate the problem from its roots. More specifically, international actors should continue supporting the transition and the establishment of rule of law in the countries where the migrants originated, supporting investment in development and poverty eradication, supporting resilience, and enhancing sustainable livelihoods and self-reliance opportunities. The Valletta Summit Action Plan serves as a significant example of these efforts. The implementation of the content of this Action Plan is monitored by the Rabat Process, the Khartoum Process, and of the Joint EU-Africa Strategy.

Regarding the detection and combat of smuggling of migrants at sea, the missions responsible for disrupting the business model of smuggling and trafficking currently undertake concerted efforts to identify, capture, and dispose vessels as well as assets used or suspected of being used by migrant smugglers or traffickers. Operation Sophia, launched in June 2015 under the auspices of the EU, provides a notable example of these types of operations.

Another important proposal aimed at the root causes of mixed migration is Article 13 of the Cotonou Agreement, in which many countries of origin of migrants are signatories, and its amendments to be applicable to the recent developments. Article 13 includes aspects of illegal migration and examining its impact with a view to establishing, where appropriate, the means for a preventative policy. Considering the close cooperation between the IMO and European Union, members of the IMO council should urge the EU to proceed with this application of the Article which concerns the promotion of dialogue regarding migration in the framework of the African, Caribbean, and Pacific Group of States (ACP) and EU partnership and provide useful guidelines on how it can be done in an effective way.

Moreover, based on the Berlin Plus Agreement and considering the success of Operation Atalanta, whose aim is to tackle piracy, it is undoubtedly crucial to secure increased cooperation between EU and NATO and the establishment of joint operations. As part of Operation Atalanta, both the EU and NATO performed similar duties in the same operational theater but without an agreed framework, unlike operations Althea and Concordia which were under the auspices of Berlin Plus Agreement.

What motivation do states have to comply with these regulations and to provide efficient proposals and solutions in order to tackle this threat? In a globalized world we cannot be distant viewers. Activity at sea has a global impact. Even within the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) (article 125) landlocked countries are specifically called out:

Land-locked States shall have the right of access to and from the sea for the purpose of exercising the rights provided for in this Convention including those relating to the freedom of the high seas and the common heritage of mankind. To this end, land-locked States shall enjoy freedom of transit through the territory of transit States by all means of transport.[5]

Considering this, no actor should stay uninvolved in this challenge. Close cooperation at the international and regional level in the medium term can prove that efficient management of the migration crisis in the Mediterranean is not a modern day illusion but a realistic possibility.

Evmorfia-Chrysovalantou Seiti is a graduate of the Master’s Program “Political, Economic and International Relations in the Mediterranean,” Department of Mediterranean Studies, University of the Aegean, Rhodes, Greece.

[1] Sekimizu, Koji. “European Coast Guard Functions Forum.” Presentation September 25, 2014, Speech available at: http://www.imo.org/en/MediaCentre/SecretaryGeneral/SpeechesByTheSecretaryGeneral/Pages/Coastguardforum.aspx

[2] “UN Agencies meet to address unsafe mixed migration by sea.” Briefing: 4; March 4, 2015, Briefing available at: http://www.imo.org/en/MediaCentre/PressBriefings/Pages/04-unsafemigrationbyseaopening.aspx

[3] “Joint statement from IMO Secretary-General Koji Sekimizu and IOM Director-General William L. Swing on enhanced cooperation and collaboration between the two Organizations.” June 29, 2015, Statement available at: https://www.iom.int/sites/default/files/press_release/file/IMO-IOM-Joint-Statement-June-2015.pdf.

[4] “Human Trafficking and Smuggling on the Horn of Africa-Central Mediterranean Route.” SAHAN and IGAD Security Sector Program (ISSP); February 2016, available at: http://igad.int/attachments/1284_ISSP%20Sahan%20HST%20Report%20%2018ii2016%20FINAL%20FINAL.pdf

[5] United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982, available at: http://www.un.org/depts/los/convention_agreements/texts/unclos/part10.htm.

The Importance of U.S. Chairmanship of the Arctic Council

This month the United States will begin its two-year Chairmanship of the Arctic Council, a high-level intergovernmental forum that primarily addresses environmental protection and sustainable development issues in the Arctic region.  The Arctic Council, which also includes Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden (also referred to as the A8), was formed as a result of the Ottawa Declaration in 1996.  As interest in the Arctic has grown over the years, so too has the status of the Arctic Council. 

With the Arctic becoming more attractive, there will be opportunities for major international players to share information and best practices for sustainable development and safe navigation through the busy shipping lanes in the region.  It is realistic to believe that all Arctic and major trading nations benefit from open access to shipping lanes in the Arctic.  However, the geopolitical significance placed on the Arctic by some actors may hinder information-sharing of all types between states active in the region.  For example, Arctic states, who all have different coast guard structures, could deny information to others in order to protect sovereign rights.  Furthermore, non-Arctic states, particularly China, may build influence in the region to pursue its own interests.  China’s economy relies heavily on shipping and plans to use the Arctic to ship around 15% of its international trade by 2020.  A precedent must be set that manages possible competing influences in the Arctic to secure peaceful usage of the region.   

Besides the permanent members of the Arctic Council, there are non-Arctic states with Observer Status who, at the moment, do not play a significant role in the Council’s decision-making, but may in the future.  Many states have an interest in the Arctic, which is likely to drive certain actors to pursue unilateral actions to enhance their Arctic objectives if there is no change to the status quo.  With top energy consumers and economic powers like China and India as Observers, along with Russia’s aggressive activity in the Arctic, as evidenced by its large-scale military exercises, the U.S. must exercise a leadership role to coordinate collaboration between all states interested in the Arctic, mitigating tensions and ensuring freedom of the seas.  

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, host of the 8th Arctic Council meeting, opens the closing session attended by Secretary of State John Kerry at the City Hall in Kiruna, Sweden on May 15, 2013.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, host of the 8th Arctic Council meeting, opens the closing session attended by Secretary of State John Kerry at the City Hall in Kiruna, Sweden on May 15, 2013.

Most Americans are probably not aware of what the Arctic Council is and that the U.S. will be its Chair starting later this month.  This U.S. Chairmanship is sure to differ from its predecessor Canada’s, as the U.S. seems adamant about having a strong focus on climate change while also building upon Canada’s theme of economic development in the Arctic.  Because issues in the Arctic affect a number of nations, the United States has a grand opportunity to use its Arctic strategy to help guide multilateral cooperation to promote regional governance and stability.   

Due to the geopolitical factors associated with the Arctic, it is important to remind the American public of the potential opportunities for the U.S. to further its goals in the High North.  With competing interests in the Arctic, the U.S. should seek out opportunities to strengthen its cooperation with the other Arctic nations.  Russia has been the most active in the Arctic by margin.  Relations between Russia and the other A8 have been strained since Russia annexed Crimea, but the U.S. should prevent a “Crimea flu” from taking place, while also not allowing Russia to encroach upon its Arctic neighbors’ sovereign territory.  Whether it be technological partnerships to advance oil and natural gas exploration or multilateral efforts within the Arctic Council to develop a comprehensive framework aimed at Arctic security, the U.S. should make it a goal to work with Arctic and non-Arctic states to further unity and stability in the region.   

U.S. Approach to the Arctic Region

As demonstrated by the Obama administration’s Implementation Plan for The National Strategy for the Arctic Region, the United States will look to address certain themes during its Chairmanship of the Arctic Council.  Those themes include: Arctic Ocean safety, security and stewardship; improving economic and living conditions; and addressing the impacts of climate change.  These issues will become increasingly more important as the diminishing polar ice cap will make the Arctic broadly accessible and vastly enhance the region’s appeal.  Experts at the Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predict that based on current trends the Arctic will be ice-free in the summertime before 2050.  The melting of Arctic ice will result in new complex issues concerning the exploitation of natural resources, freedom of navigation, and territorial sovereignty. 

NOAA Ship Fairweather in the Alaskan Arctic.
NOAA Ship Fairweather in the Alaskan Arctic.

Preventing tensions in these focus areas is in the interest of the Council, as all seek stability in the Arctic.  The challenge though is for all Arctic nations to understand that inter-council tensions will threaten their interests.  As stated in a report by the Director of National Intelligence last year, “Some states see the Arctic as a strategic security issue that has the potential to give other countries an advantage in positioning in their military forces.”  Militarizing the Arctic may seem advantageous to individual states in the region, but doing so weakens Arctic governance and threatens the interests of global commerce.  Thus, it is important to persuade all Arctic states, particularly Russia, that military activity in the High North is likely to deteriorate the Arctic’s future economic viability.

In addition to the themes laid out in America’s Implementation Plan for the Arctic, there are certain goals the U.S. is looking to achieve over the next two years.  As stated by Julie Gourley, a Senior Arctic Official at the State Department, during a conference in Washington, DC this past summer, U.S. overarching goals while Chair of the Council are to introduce new projects and initiatives into the Council; raise public awareness of the Arctic and why it is important to U.S. interests; and strengthen the Council as an intergovernmental body.  The U.S. will focus on cooperation among the A8 on implementing renewable energy projects in the region, especially solar, wave, and wind, while also developing information and communication technologies to foster partnerships.  Increasing public awareness of the Arctic could garner more support for U.S. activity in the Arctic and help expand economic development.  The U.S. Government is planning to allow Shell to restart its drilling for oil in the Arctic, while also continuing to work on its Draft Proposed Program that would allow three lease sales in Alaska (Beaufort Sea, Chukchi Sea, and Cook Inlet areas).  The administration’s program, according to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, would make available nearly 80 % of Alaska’s undiscovered technically recoverable resources. 

Based upon the Obama administration’s literature, it seems that the U.S. is placing more emphasis on environmental stewardship than economic development when it comes to its Arctic strategy.  Preserving Arctic ecosystems and limiting the negative impact of energy exploration on the environment are factors that must be considered; however, not finding the right balance may cause the U.S. to fall further behind in acting as a strong voice in international Arctic policy.

Natural Resources in the Arctic

According to a U.S. Geological Survey 2008 report, the Arctic comprises 22% of the world’s remaining undiscovered, technically recoverable petroleum resources.  These resources include 13% of undiscovered oil, 30% of undiscovered natural gas, and 20% of undiscovered natural gas liquids to the Arctic.  It is projected that the Alaskan Arctic region holds the largest undiscovered Arctic oil deposits, approximately 30 billion barrels. 

A second drill rig engaged in Beaufort Sea exploration.
A second drill rig engaged in Beaufort Sea exploration.

Not only can the U.S. benefit from Arctic oil and natural gas, there are also mineral resources that may be an even more important economic driver.  Examples of such resources include zinc, lead, gold, coal, iron ore, nickel, and palladium.  As noted in a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, without the appropriate infrastructure and funding, these natural resources cannot be appropriately explored and extracted.  

In order for the U.S. and the other A8 states to take advantage of the economic value of the High North, it will require an Arctic that is stable for passage by vessels and safe exploration of resources.  As the next Chair of the Arctic Council, the U.S. should develop a cooperative effort among the A8 to focus on Arctic security to assure stability and maritime safety in the region.

Preserving Stability in the Arctic  

Given the number of territorial disputes and the vast amounts of natural resources in the region, there is the possibility that tensions could rise among the Arctic states. Commerce through the Arctic will only increase while the Arctic melts, thus, it is imperative to prevent conflict that may disrupt maritime trade and security.  To preserve peace and security in the region, the U.S. can act as a guardian in strengthening regional cooperation through confidence and security building measures with the other Arctic nations.  

Presently, military conflict in the Arctic does not look realistic.  However, Russia, who has been the most active in the High North, has placed a strong emphasis on the Arctic in its military doctrine.  Russian Defense Minister Army General Sergei Shoigu said in February, “A broad spectrum of potential challenges and threats to our national security is now being formed in the Arctic.  Therefore, one of the defense ministry’s priorities is to develop military infrastructure in this zone.”  Russian military buildup could be destabilizing, which is why the U.S. should implement intergovernmental mechanisms to reduce future tensions.

 Pacific fleet vessels' sortie for combat training

The U.S. could introduce confidence and security building measures that would allow the A8 to cooperate on maintaining stability in the Arctic.  For instance, the U.S. could lead an effort to establish an annual forum that brings the heads of state of the A8 countries to discuss Arctic security issues.  Government officials from the Arctic Council members have met on several occasions to discuss security issues in the Arctic, such as: the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable, Coast Guard Forum, and Northern Chiefs of Defense Meeting.  However, having the U.S. President call upon the other A8 leaders to meet would demonstrate America’s commitment to upholding security in the Arctic. 

Other mechanisms to preserve peace in the Arctic could include bi or multilateral cooperation on Arctic technology or infrastructure for energy exploration in the region, and possibly an annual Arctic security exercise between the A8 to strengthen maritime safety procedures.  For the former to occur, the U.S. administration will need to show more willingness to pursue such projects.  To start, it would be beneficial for the United States to invest in the production of new icebreakers to support security exercises.  A Foreign Affairs article lays out several reasons as to how new icebreakers can enhance U.S. security in the Arctic and foster international cooperation.  Additionally, progress in renewable energy in the Arctic is beneficial to all and could be a leading example in the potential of this technology.  With all Arctic states seeing the importance of unconventional energy sources, collaboration in this sector through government-initiated development programs could assist in strengthening Arctic security.   

There are multiple opportunities for the U.S. to take a leading role in strengthening Arctic security for decades to come.  The U.S. can lead efforts to efficiently manage governance in this new common space by having the A8 establish a Working Group or framework that outlines shared responsibilities of security in the Arctic, to collaborate with the A8 to develop infrastructure needed to support transportation through the Arctic (such as a networked maritime domain awareness fusion centers encircling Arctic or other communication systems), and to create capabilities required to oversee and police the Arctic waters.  All of these efforts can accommodate the needs of all Arctic nations; however, the U.S., as well as the other A8 members, will need to significantly fund such efforts, which seems difficult with today’s budget constraints.

A Historic Opportunity Awaits the U.S.

Chairing the Arctic Council provides the U.S. with the chance to more effectively implement collaboration among the Arctic nations.  Of course, not everything the U.S. wants will be achieved, as the Council requires consensus by all eight states to move forward with any activity.  Instead, the U.S. should look for opportunities to advance the interests of all Arctic states for policy to turn into action during the U.S. Chairmanship. 

Accomplishing all of its geopolitical goals in the Arctic will be difficult.  The United States has trouble funding its own projects in the Arctic, whether it be the exploration of natural resources or building an icebreaking fleet.  Even the Council as a whole has issues with funding, which has impeded certain initiatives.  The next two years will be of high importance for the U.S. in terms of establishing itself as a key Arctic state.  Therefore, all levels of the U.S. Government should work together with their Arctic partners to take advantage of this historic opportunity.

Polar Shipping: A 2014 Recap

By Captain David (Duke) Snider, FNI FRGS
The year 2014 was indeed one of intriguing activity in the Polar Regions. The maritime world and public in general began the year captivated by the almost hourly updates from the Russian ship Akademik Shokalskiy, captive in the Antarctic Ice.  
 
Antarctic CaptivityIt certainly wasn’t the first time a ship had become beset in polar ice conditions, nor will it be the last. What caught the attention of the world was that modern technology and the thirst for a moment in the spotlight prompted regular Internet postings by blog and other means highlighting the “plight” of the ship from several onboard.  French and Chinese light icebreakers attempted to close the distance between open water and the beset ship but could not get sufficiently close to break her out. Even the United States Coast Guard’s Polar Star was diverted to assist. The decision was then made to fly a helicopter from the Chinese ship Xue Long to repatriate the hapless high paying passengers and “science party”. A short time later, having never declared a distress, and knowing the ice conditions would change, the Master and crew steamed clear of the ice under their own power. In the end, the Australian government shelled out nearly $2m Australian in “rescue efforts”. Shortly after the Akademik Shokalskiy steamed clear of the ice, the Russians felt the situation had been so distorted as to its danger in the press that a formal statement was made at IMO making it clear that the Akademik Shokalskiy and her crew were well suited to the conditions, and at no time in danger and that the Master of the vessel did not declare distress.

The Polar Code

The playing out of the Akademik Shokalskiy incident became a backdrop for more frenzied efforts at IMO to finalize drafts and meet Secretary General Koji Sekimizu’s desire for a mandatory Polar Code as soon as practicable.  

Throughout 2014, various committees, sub-committees and working groups struggled to finalize consensus-based drafts of a Polar Code; however, the Secretary General’s strict timetable demanding an adoption before 2017 unfortunately resulted in the gradual streamlining of the initial robust drafts. In order to meet the timelines set down, issues that were remotely contentious or not subject to almost total consensual agreement were watered down or omitted.  

Many parties were disappointed to see a much weaker document evolve into what was finally approved by the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) in November. Others leapt to declare a new age of safety and environmental protection for Antarctic and Arctic waters. 

Come the end of 2014, the Polar Code was still some way from actualization. The entire Part II – Prevention of Pollution must still go through the Maritime Environmental Protection Committee adoption, then the Council must approve both parts submitted by MSC and MEPC. Still, given the SG’s direction, there will be a mandatory Polar Code in existence by the first of 2017; however, it will not be the powerful and robust direction it was originally envisioned to be.  

As a result, many classification societies and flag states are already issuing “guidance” to close gaps that have been left by the leaner “more friendly” Polar Code. The Nautical Institute is moving forward with their plans to put in place an Ice Navigation Training and Certification Scheme to meet basic requirements of the human element chapter of the Polar Code with defined standards of training and certification.

Ice Conditions

Climatically, 2014 was more in line with 2013 as a heavier ice year overall in the Arctic this summer. This followed a particularly bad year in the North American East coast, where heavier ice trapped ships and lengthened the icebreaker support season into May. In the Arctic, conditions were much tougher than the low record years of the past decade that led up to the last two. No one with any real understanding of global climate change would suggest that 2013 and 2014 can be held as the “end of global warming”; however the variability experienced shows that it will not be easy-going for polar shipping in the near future and that ice conditions will continue to wax and wane.

Polar Traffic

Traffic in the Polar Regions still has not met the expectations of some over-optimistic forecasts. The Northern Sea Route (NSR) experienced a dramatic reduction in traffic this year. Less than two dozen full transits were reported and initial figure indicate only 274,000 tons of cargo moved compared to 2013’s 1,356,000 tons. Though ice conditions in the NSR were somewhat more difficult in 2014, conditions were heavier in the Canadian Arctic. 

Notably absent this year was an expected repeat Northwest Passage transit by Nordic Bulk after their landmark Nordic Orion voyage in 2013. Fednav’s latest arrival, MV Nunavik, did however make a westbound transit late in the season.

Routine destination traffic, which includes the resupply of Arctic communities and export of resources, continues to show incremental increases in both the NSR and Northwest Passage (NWP). However there has been some cooling of interest in hydrocarbon exploration over the past year, whether it is as a result of sanctions against Russia for their activities related to Ukraine, or uncertainty of regulatory environment in American waters.  

In the Antarctic region, traffic statistics remain static, driven mainly by research, resupply of research stations and the occasional adventure cruise vessel.

Ice Ship Orders and Construction

The growing interest in polar ice shipping is being felt in ship orders and construction. Numerous ice class ships are on the order books, and some notable orders and deliveries are those of Nordic Bulk with their Baltic ice class new builds and Canada’s Fednav with delivery of their newest icebreaker cargo ship Nunavik. The latter made news with the first unescorted commercial cargo vessel transit of the Northwest Passage this summer.  

Russia has announced and commenced the construction of their new design conventionally powered icebreakers as well as three LK60 nuclear powered icebreakers. Russia is also building a number of icebreaking search and rescue vessels to meet their commitment to increase SAR capability after wholeheartedly embracing the Arctic Council’s 2010 Arctic SAR agreement.  

At the beginning of the year, Russia took possession of the novel oblique icebreaker, Baltica.  Shortly after delivering the Baltica, Finland’s Arctech Helsinki Shipyard announced a contract to build three icebreakers for the Northeast Sakhalin oil and gas field. Perhaps the largest Russian driven high ice class construction is the DSME designed 170,000m3 icebreaking LNGCs to be built for LNG export from the new Yamal field. These ships will be operated by a number of companies including SOVCOMFLOT, MOL and Teekay over the life of the Yamal project. A fleet of six support icebreakers for port and channel clearing, as well as line support in heavier coastal ice will also be built. Three more ice class shuttle tankers were ordered from Samsung Heavy Industries by SOVCOMFLOT for delivery by April 2017.

China is building a new icebreaker to complement their secondhand Xue Long, delivery in 2016; Britain has begun the work to acquire a new 130m icebreaker for delivery in 2019; Australia intends to replace the Aurora Australis hoped for by 2018 with the bidding narrowed to three contenders in the fall; Germany is not far behind in plans to replace the venerable Polar Stern; and, Finland has a new Baltic LNG fuelled Icebreaker under construction and has announced a billion Euro plan to replace their current fleet of icebreakers in coming years. 

India has also announced plans to build a polar research icebreaker to be operational before the end of the decade. Columbia has announced plans to build and send an ice-capable research ship to Antarctica while Chile’s president announced in December plans to build an ice-capable research ship for Antarctic service as soon as practicable.

Though the American built light icebreaker research vessel Sikiluaq entered service this past year, the United States and Canada continue to be mired in indecision or delays with respect to ice-capable ship construction. There are no clear plans to consider replacing the ageing United States Coast Guard’s polar class ships, and Canada’s much vaunted announcement of the acquisition of the new generation polar icebreaker, which was named by the government as the John G. Diefenbaker, has seen cost increases and delays in delivery. The original delivery of 2017, for the Diefenbaker has slid to the right, first to 2020 and now rumored to be 2022.  Reports now indicate the original construction cost of $750m CDN has climbed to well over $1.2B CDN. Given the advancing age of Canada’s venerable icebreaking fleet, it is surprising that only one replacement has been approved.  

The Royal Canadian Navy’s plans to build 6-8 ice-class Arctic Offshore Patrol vessels has experienced similar cost overruns and delays even before steel has been cut. News reports at the end of 2014 indicated the number of ships that could be obtained would likely be fewer than originally announced, and only three vessels could be built for the allocated budget.

Changes in Arctic Offshore

Russia’s almost frantic growth in Arctic exploration and exploitation over the past decade has taken a downturn in the past months. As a result of increasing sanctions put in place by European Union, the United States and other nations, and the rapidly dropping price of oil in the last weeks of 2014, Russia has either seen the gradual pulling away of western partners, or has terminated contracts themselves (such as the recent termination of contracts with Norwegian OSV operators), and reduced projections for hydrocarbon export. As a result, hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation activities in the Russian Arctic began to slow in the latter part of the year.   

In the midst of pullbacks from exploration, Russia has continued to bolster their Arctic presence, opening the first three of ten Arctic search and rescue centers in 2014, taking delivery of the first of six icebreaking search and rescue ships and increasing naval presence capability.

Risks Remain Evident

Just as the situation with the Akademik Shokalskiy indicated in the Antarctic in the beginning of the year (in the latter part of the Antarctic shipping season), an incident with a Northern Transportation Company Limited barge adrift in the Beaufort Sea at the end of the Arctic shipping season highlighted the remote nature of polar shipping operations.  In each case, the situations were exacerbated by the lack of nearby rescue resources. While the Akademik Shokalskiy eventually broke free on her own, the NTCL barge was left to freeze into the ice over the winter as the tug initially towing was unable to reconnect and no other resources were close enough to recover the nearly empty fuel barge.

Discovery of the Wreck of HMS Erebus

One long standing search and recovery mission did result in a very successful search this year as the Canadian Coast Guard ship Sir Wilfrid Laurier and onboard researchers from Canadian Hydrographic Services and Parks Canada discovered the well preserved remains of Sir John Franklin’s flag ship HMS Erebus in the waters near to King William Island in the Canadian central Arctic.  

Under command of Sir John Franklin, HMS Erebus and Terror set out from England in the mid 1800’s in what was thought to be the most technologically advanced and therefore “bound to be successful” effort to discover and sail the Northwest Passage. Tragically, both of Franklin’s ships became hopelessly trapped in the ice, the crews eventually abandoned both vessels and were never seen alive again. Most of the Canadian Arctic was charted in the many searches at sea and from ashore in search of survivors, many relics were discovered including a note that described the abandonment, but the vessels themselves remained lost until this summer when HMS Erebus was discovered.

This post originally appeared in The Maritime Executive.