FeaturesIllicit ActivityIntegrated Deterrence

Maritime Domain Awareness

A United Nations program provides technology, training to better secure Indo-Pacific waterways

FORUM Staff  |  Photos By United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime

Securing maritime borders requires more than merely having the technology to detect anomalies; it must also include a workforce trained to analyze the data. People with skills to know what they’re seeing and how to explain and report it are a key component to deterrence. And the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) Global Maritime Crime Programme (GMCP) is expanding its cooperation with maritime law enforcement agencies across the Indo-Pacific to ensure they have both the technology and the talent.

“Given that maritime security challenges cannot be addressed by a single state alone, and given the proximity of states’ maritime zones, strengthening interagency and interstate collaboration is key to effectively responding to maritime threats in the region,” according to the GMCP’s Pacific Ocean Team.

The U.N. Security Council established the GMCP in 2010 to address piracy off the Horn of Africa. At its inception, the program was known as the Counter Piracy Programme. It evolved as it expanded its engagement and geographic reach and began operating in six areas globally.

In the Pacific, the GMCP has improved maritime domain awareness (MDA) by installing coastal automatic identification systems (AIS) and other technology and infrastructure, upgrading marine police surveillance centers, and providing training to maritime law enforcement and local fishermen, according to Shanaka Jayasekara, the program’s coordinator for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

UNODC’s Global Maritime Crime Programme and the Indonesian Coast Guard open a maritime training facility in Batam, Indonesia, in 2022.

Jayasekara shared details of the GMCP’s current and planned engagements with Pacific Island Countries during the 2022 Maritime Security Working Group. The weeklong series of presentations and discussions, held at the Shangri-La hotel in Singapore in May 2022, provided a forum for military, government and interagency personnel to highlight their efforts in the Pacific and brainstorm ways to enhance collaboration.

In that spirit, the Pacific Ocean Team already has an established series of maritime law enforcement dialogues that serve as a platform for cooperation among nations, including Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. During these dialogues, maritime law enforcement personnel and legal advisors share maritime trends and identify areas of concern. UNODC also established the Contact Group on Maritime Crime in the Sulu and Celebes Seas to help coastal states and international partners better understand and develop responses to maritime crime.

“With half the surface of the world made up of international waters beyond the jurisdiction of any single state, maritime law enforcement is legally complex and operationally challenging,” Miwa Kato, UNODC’s operations director, said in the forward to a GMCP annual report. “At the same time, with many of the world’s major trade routes relying on safe maritime passage, ensuring the rule of law on water is key to promoting economic development and security and [those] are indispensable ingredients for the U.N.’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This is true especially in regions with rapidly growing connectivity and trade, such as the Indo-Pacific region.”

Such bustling activity in a growing space comes with challenges. Existing frameworks, such as the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), are designed to limit those obstacles, suggesting avenues for deconfliction and providing guidance where matters of sovereignty are concerned. UNCLOS outlines a comprehensive list establishing rules for governing all uses of oceans and their resources. “It enshrines the notion that all problems of ocean space are closely interrelated and need to be addressed as a whole,” according to the U.N. Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea.

Indonesian personnel practice visit, board, search and seizure procedures during training facilitated by the Global Maritime Crime Programme.

A key feature of UNCLOS confirms that “coastal states exercise sovereignty over their territorial sea which they have the right to establish its breadth up to a limit not to exceed 12 nautical miles,” allowing foreign vessels “innocent passage” through those waters.

The convention’s full text includes 320 articles and nine annexes that deal with governing all facets of the ocean, including delimitation, environmental control, marine scientific research, economic and commercial activities, technology transfer, and the settlement of disputes relating to ocean matters.

“All countries, coastal and landlocked, rely on the security of the world’s oceans,” said Ghada Waly, head of the UNODC, according to an agency report. “Freedom of navigation, confirmed by the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, is recognized as a fundamental principle of international law. This time-honored freedom has come increasingly under threat.”


The Pacific Ocean Team has five priorities for the region:

  • Promote white hull diplomacy, using coast guard-type forces rather than regular navy forces to constitute a stabilizing presence by building skills to de-escalate situations at sea and enhance regional cooperation through maritime law enforcement dialogues.
  • Establish a trilateral coast guard regional commanders’ network, among Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia, to build understanding of developments in the Sulu and Celebes seas and to disseminate maritime crime information under the Sulu and Celebes Seas Contact Group.
  • Expand stakeholders in a multi-agency approach to countering drug trafficking in the Andaman Sea and Gulf of Thailand.
  • Enhance MDA capability and analysis through equipment support and strengthening analytical capacity.
  • Enhance prosecutorial capacity by harmonizing international standards through assessments of maritime law and simulated trials in littoral states.
  • According to UNODC data, only 30% of border officials say they have received training and that it’s not always adequate.

“In terms of technology-based MDA, we have to look at human intelligence gathering,” Jayasekara said during the working group in Singapore.

It’s not enough to simply equip coastal communities with AIS and radio frequency detection devices. If maritime officials don’t know how to read the data and identify trends, then having the equipment is for naught.

In Fiji and elsewhere in the Pacific, the GMCP is working with village chiefs to collect information from coastal communities and fishermen, training them to take note of unusual patterns of life at sea and to report those findings to maritime authorities via a social media app. Jayasekara said the human input complements the work of technical sources.

On the technology front, the GMCP in recent months provided X-band coastal radar to maritime surveillance centers to upgrade capabilities in the Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Tonga and Tuvalu.


Terrorist groups take note of maritime security vulnerabilities they can use to their advantage, according to “Violence at Sea: How Terrorists, Insurgents, and Other Extremists Exploit the Maritime Domain,” a 2020 report published by Stable Seas, a transnational research initiative to counter threats to peace at sea.

“Increasingly, they strategically leverage sea blindness and weak maritime capabilities to smuggle fighters and weapons, orchestrate attacks on maritime targets and even finance their operations through illicit trafficking and taxation schemes,” the Stable Seas report said. “While the challenges of securing the maritime domain are well understood in both academic and policy circles, developing robust and effective capabilities to quell maritime threats remains an intricate challenge.”

Terrorists make no distinction when targeting ships at sea, taking aim at military and civilian vessels underway and in port, a GMCP brief noted. They “also make use of the sea as a means of transporting fighters and their weapons to the scene of their attacks,” the agency said. “The ability of states to closely monitor vessels at sea is instrumental to the increasing success of sanctions regimes imposed on terrorism.”

To better combat terrorism, the GMCP works with coast guards, prosecutors, courts and port authorities to improve maritime and port security, deliver a range of surveillance support with the latest satellite technology and facilitate simulated trials of maritime terrorism. “GMCP recognizes that maritime terrorism is often linked to other forms of maritime crime, so many of the capabilities that we provide to maritime law enforcement officers are also relevant to tackling maritime terrorism,” the agency said.

Additional resources include MDA courses to strengthen comprehension of visit, board, search and seizure procedures, safe navigation, piracy, terrorism, and smuggling contraband and people.

“Supporting member states in countering maritime crime threats and criminality at large will contribute directly to improve lives for people around the world,” Kato said in the GMCP annual report. “Reducing impunity and strengthening the rule of law on the world’s oceans is therefore a crucial step in promoting sustainable development, as well as wider peace and security.”  

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