Maritime Security – Challenges and Response

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when the concept of maritime security was closely tied to the traditional use of naval military power for the protection of one’s coast and maritime interests. For the more robust naval powers, such security was ensured through naval power projection, while relatively weaker states had little option but to rely on defensive means.


Till the time UNCLOS ‘82 took effect, the ground rules for marshalling the maritime environment were unfortunately laid by those states which were already de facto in a position of control. The term ‘mare nostrum’ (our sea) was coined by the Romans in 30 BCE to describe their total grip over the Mediterranean Sea. In 1609 ACE, Hugo Grotius, a Dutch philosopher-cum-jurist, introduced the concept of ‘Mare Liberum’ (free sea) enjoining the freedom of navigation at sea. This came at a time when the Dutch were trying to make deeper inroads into the Indian Ocean trading system and their expectation of a level playing field was hindered by the firm Portuguese grip over the ocean’s chokepoints. Around 27 years later, an English academic, John Selden, came out in support of ‘mare clausum’ (closed sea), meaning thereby that the sea was in practise as capable of appropriation as land territory. This led to the emergence of numerous conflicting claims which had the potential of fomenting perpetual chaos had not better sense gradually prevailed.


The most crucial development so far was the coming into force of UNCLOS ‘82. This Convention not only conferred proportionate rights on all coastal, and even non-coastal, states, but more importantly, invested them with vital stakes in the maintenance of stability at sea.


UNCLOS ‘82 is best understood as a framework providing a basic foundation for the international law of the oceans, and which is intended to be extended and elaborated upon through more specific international agreements and the evolving customs of states. These extensions are continually emerging, making the law of the sea at once broader, more complex and more detailed than UNCLOS.

Just as international law has continued to evolve, so have threats to good order at sea, the difference being that while the former is positive in nature, the other foments instability.


The one thing that is most central to a nation’s well-being is its ability to trade freely across continents. A country’s natural resources, along with a matching value-adding capacity, are all meaningless if a corresponding ability to trade is denied. The importance of the sea can thus easily be envisaged when one realises that more than 85% of world trade is conducted through this medium. This also helps explain why during both the world wars, one of the foremost missions assigned to the navies of both the adversarial powers was to protect one’s own sea trade, while denying it to the other side. Apart from scenarios where national interests trump collective needs, the twin concepts of the sea as being a common heritage of mankind, from which all states benefit from, and of the freedom of the sea, has now firmly taken root. This augurs well for all coastal states.


From Pakistan’s perspective, disruptions may occur if a war or near war situation arises. How the country deals with such emerging threats falls in the realm of naval strategy and tactics.


Let me however add that all the major maritime powers, as well as the countries straddling the Persian Gulf, have vast stakes in keeping the international sea trade routes open, and may not take too kindly to any form of disruption in a two-sided war. Belligerents too, if convinced that no significant advantage is likely to be accrued by disrupting their adversary’s sea trade while their own is equally vulnerable, may well decide to steer clear of what has been termed as guerre de course. And therein lies the value of deterrence.


These days, as Dr Christian Bueger has pointed out, maritime security has simply become a buzzword and barring a consensus on what it encompasses, it still serves the useful need of drawing attention to new challenges and rallying support for tackling them. The maritime security matrix is thus broadly linked to national security, human security, marine environment and economic development.


This brings us to non-traditional challenges at sea, which adversely impacts all the above-named issues in one way or another. These may take the form of terrorism, piracy, poaching, narco-smuggling, gun-running, human trafficking and environmental degradation. Such threats have not only attained prominence, but tend to crop up in areas where they face the least resistance.


It was the 1985 hijacking of the passenger liner Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean, which resulted in the senseless killing of a paraplegic passenger, that brought the issue of maritime terrorism in the spotlight. The ensuing deliberations led to the adoption of the UN Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Marine Navigation (SUA Convention in short) in 1988.

The magnitude of the 9/11 terrorist attacks ushered in its wake the stark realisation that a similar attack on any major maritime hub could very well cause an immeasurable dent in the global economy. The US, feeling particularly vulnerable, kept launching one initiative after another: The Container Security Initiative, Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, Maritime Transportation Security Act, Megaports Initiative, Proliferation Security Initiative, SAFE Ports Act and Secure Freight Initiative.


As far as the global community was concerned, the greatest breakthrough in strengthening maritime security occurred in December 2002 at an IMO-sponsored conference, where the International Ship & Port Facility Security Code was unveiled. Since it was tabled as an amendment to the existing Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention, it’s compliance became mandatory for the 148 SOLAS contracting parties. The ISPS Code provides mandatory requirements for governments, port authorities and shipping companies, as well as guidance for implementation.

Because of its unpredictable nature and massive devastation potential, terrorism poses the most significant risk by far to merchantmen and even naval vessels. The bombing of the USS Cole, while at the Aden anchorage, in 2000, and MV Lindberg off the coast of Yemen in 2002, both rammed by explosives-laden dinghies, best illustrate the nature of this threat, though not its full potential.


Piracy poses the next biggest threat. The Malacca Straits, the South China Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the Gulf of Guinea display marked vulnerabilities. Yet when compared to Somali piracy in its heyday (2005-2012), these are mere pinpricks. In Somalia, what started off as a local endeavour to curb rampant poaching and dumping of toxic waste in its lawless waters, grew into a full-blown piratical enterprise. It spiralled out of control by 2008, when fabulous sums of money were being raked in as ransom for captured vessels, cargo and crew. In 2010 alone, pirates seized close to 50 vessels, taking nearly 1200 seamen as hostages. And from this peak, piracy dwindled gradually in 2011 and more rapidly the next. What caused such piracy to flourish in the first place was a belated and disjointed international response. A number of high value interdictions had finally forced a large number of warships to converge onto the high risk areas by 2009, either as part of international groupings like the EUs Operation Atalanta, NATOs Operation Ocean Shield or the international coalition’s CTF 151, or as individual units, to protect their country’s national interests. At the end of the day, piracy off Somalia, which had spread its tentacles to the furthest reaches of the western Indian Ocean, was brought under control through a series of coordinated steps:

  1. Broad-based UN resolutions authorising the international community to tackle the threat in a collaborative manner by targeting the planners, facilitators and perpetrators of piracy, not only within Somali waters but also within its land territory if required.
  2. Preparation, dissemination and updating of an industry-backed initiative outlining best management practises to deter piracy.
  3. Authorising merchantmen traversing the area to carry armed guards for protection.
  4. Imposition of banking curbs on UK banks in particular, to complicate the issue of ransom payments.
  5. Setting up of a task force aimed at targeting the organisers, financiers and negotiators behind the piracy enterprise.
  6. Encouraging the collaborative capacity building of regional states.


Malacca Strait is a high density traffic lane. Once realisation sunk in that trade disruptions in this corridor were inimical to the regional economy, the three major countries straddling the waterway, namely Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, started containment efforts through effective coordination in the form of ReCAAP and commencement of joint patrols, which proved immensely successful. The only major flashpoint at the moment is the Gulf of Guinea, where the principal player, Nigeria, needs to spearhead a similar initiative. The G8++ Friends of the Gulf of Guinea (FOGG) group tries to help out with the capacity-building of regional states.

Side by side with piracy, other crimes too have blossomed, largely unchecked.


Criminal enterprises find the medium to be an inviting one, since the vast expanse of the sea makes effective policing difficult. From the illegal transportation of humans, drugs and arms to poaching and the dumping of toxic waste, the sea has seen it all.


Maritime security is also endangered by crimes committed at sea. The most problematic aspect of such crimes is the difficulty in obtaining justice. In theory, the Captain is responsible for maintaining the peace, but in practise, the best he can do is to hand over the suspects to the nearest convenient port. He simply doesn’t possess the required persecution and judicial wherewithal. In theory again, jurisdiction devolves to the country whose flag the ship flies, but in practise, most ships fly a flag of convenience, tagged to a country that neither has the will nor the resources to investigate crimes that occur well beyond its shores.


Pakistan faces more or less the same threats, though in varying degrees. Effectively countering such diverse threats in such a vast medium is indeed an uphill task. Pakistan’s job is made even more difficult due to a number of glaring deficiencies, which I shall discuss in due course.


Pakistan’s biggest problem used to be the complete lack of coordination at the ministerial, departmental and field levels. It was left to the Pakistan Navy to take the initiative to bring together all the country’s public sector agencies with a stake in maritime security on the same grid. The Joint Maritime Information and Coordination Centre that was set up at Manora includes reps from all associated agencies for effective coordination. The Centre has not only been working smoothly since February 2013, it has also established working linkages with other regional info sharing portals, most notably the Information Fusion Centre at Singapore. With the aim of further expanding its access to maritime-related information, the Pakistan Navy joined the Trans Regional Maritime Network (T-RMN), a 32-nation group based in Italy, in October 2019.


While info sharing and coordination are undoubtedly important, their contribution would not amount to much were it not for a corresponding ability to act. Pakistan’s Maritime Security Agency, which was setup soon after UNCLOS ‘82 was opened up for signature, is primarily responsible for monitoring breaches of the Convention. The Pakistan Navy, by virtue of being endowed with effective long range surveillance and enforcement platforms, happens to be an exceedingly viable instrument that the country has at its disposal for underwriting its maritime security.


Realising that the most effective way of countering the common hybrid menaces that recognizes no boundaries is through regional alliances, the Pakistan Navy, till recently, had been a regular participant of Combined Task Forces 150 and 151, both of which it had the honour of commanding multiple times. The US-led CTF 150 had been set up in the wake of the UN-sanctioned invasion of Afghanistan, with the prime objective of ensuring maritime security in the Arabian Sea by undertaking counterterrorism operations. When piracy incidents off Somalia started registering a sharp uptick, a dedicated Combined Task Force 151 was set up to patrol, monitor and counter piracy in general, in the Gulf of Yemen. Based on the friendships forged and experiences gained through such multi-Naval enterprises, the Pakistan Navy has since instituted its own Regional Maritime Security Patrols.


While on the subject of implementation, it may be worthwhile to mention that the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea is not the be-all and end-all of all maritime matters. While correctly dubbed as an informal constitution of the oceans, it mostly lays down broad principles, leaving the elaboration of rules to other treaties. The International Maritime Organisation, an organ of the United Nations, essays an oversized role in the promulgation and regular updating of all maritime-related conventions and codes.


As far as maritime security in essence is concerned, the most relevant piece of legislation is the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code, which came into being soon after the 9/11 attacks and is a part and parcel of the SOLAS Convention. The primary objective of this code is to ensure the strengthening of security measures in order to deal effectively with all emerging maritime security threats. As per this code, Pakistan, as a contracting government, is supposed to conduct port facility security assessments, evaluate risks and prepare port security plans. All ships are required, amongst other things, to carry a Continuous Synopsis Record (CSR), and have an Automatic Information System (AIS), Ship Security Alert System (SSAS) and Long Range Identification and Tracking System (LRIT) fitted on board. While Pakistan is broadly complying with these steps, what it lacks at the moment is an effective regulatory mechanism.


The SUA Convention of 1988, as mentioned earlier, enjoins global collaboration to combat violent crimes at sea. The primary thrust of this Convention is to prevent people from endangering the safety of ship, crew or passengers. Ship masters are obliged to deliver offenders along with evidence to port of entry, while state parties have been made responsible for jurisdiction over offenders. It all looks fine on paper, but as I mentioned earlier, most masters and even state parties prefer to look the other way when confronted with vile occurrences at sea.


In broad terms, degradation of the marine environment also poses a grave threat to maritime security. IMO has accordingly adopted strict anti-pollution standards for ships courtesy of the MARPOL Convention. It may however be stressed that pollution of the sea through land-based sources poses a far graver threat. This is regulated through several regional treaties, most of which have been adopted under the aegis of the UN Environmental Program. Pakistan’s Environmental Protection Agency needs to take a lead from such UN initiatives.


Apart from regulatory issues, Pakistan is notoriously lax in formulating its own domestic legislation. When international treaties are not wedded to domestic law, implementation understandably poses difficulties. For instance, if the offence of piracy is not outlawed through domestic legislation, and piracy is not included in our penal code as a criminal act, how is Pakistan expected to prosecute pirates that it has captured. Likewise, in the absence of domestic legislation, how can Pakistani law enforcers prevent ships from dumping oil, sludge, ballast or other toxic substances in our coastal waters or prosecute them if caught. Maritime or Admiralty courts are also required for trying offences of a specialised nature, like commercial shipping matters, salvage, collisions, groundings etc.


Most of the challenges currently being faced at sea have taken on a transnational, trans-boundary and hybrid flavour. Such threats can only effectively be countered by remaining a step or two ahead ahead of the criminals who feed on them. In Pakistan’s case, that not only involves restructuring at the ministerial, departmental and field levels, but also forging regional partnerships.


All coastal states are expected to act responsibly and in tandem with each other by beefing up their port and ship-related security measures to minimise security incidents. Pakistan is expected to, and should, do all it can to ensure its own security and by extension that of the broader global maritime community. Having been plagued by terrorism for the better part of four decades, the country cannot afford its spillover into the maritime domain.

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published.