Panel – Towards a ‘blue’ criminology: How should we study transnational organised crime at sea?

Scott Edwards presented ‘Blue criminology: towards a trans-disciplinary understanding of crime at sea’ at the 24 Hour Conference on Global Organized Crime. The panel, moderated by SafeSeas co-director Tim Edmunds, also featured Mercedes Rosello (Leeds Beckett University) presenting ‘Towards a ‘blue’ criminology: How should we study transnational organised crime at sea?’, Anna Sergi (University of Essex) presenting ‘The journeys of complex crimes through the port, from the sea and into the city’, and Nigel South (University of Essex) presenting ‘Oyster gatherers and cockle pickers: organised crime and illegal harvesting of seafood ‘.

The Panel can be viewed here:

Transnational organised crime at sea is a growing international concern. These ‘blue crimes’, including piracy, smuggling, and environmental crimes such as illegal fishing, challenge maritime security law enforcement practitioners and ask new questions of academics and researchers.

By their very nature, such crimes cross boundaries. They implicate different geographical spaces, including both land and sea; they take place across national borders and jurisdictional lines; they challenge existing (often terra-centric) regional constructs; and they evidence important intersections and linkages across and between different criminal activities and networks.

In consequence, the study of blue crime is not easily confined to neat disciplinary silos. It requires insight, work and dialogue across and between multiple relevant disciplines: criminology and green criminology, international relations and security studies, law, development studies, and political geography amongst others. But how can such work take place productively? What pitfalls does it face? And what contribution can it make to the fight against transnational organised crime at sea?

This panel brought together a multi-disciplinary group of experts to consider these questions. In so doing, it outlined the contours of a new blue criminology, considered the scope and promise of such an approach, and reflected on what a blue criminological research agenda might look like going forward.

The 24 Hour Conference on Global Organized Crime is a global 24 hour event organized by the Center for Information and Research on Organized Crime (CIROC), the Standing Group on Organized Crime (ECPR-SGOC), the International Association for the Study of Organized Crime (IASOC), and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC). It featured over 320 speakers on more than 70 panels.

SafeSeas submits joint evidence to ‘International Relations and Defence Committee’

SafeSeas submitted evidence to the UK’s House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee inquiry ‘UNCLOS: fit for purpose in the 21st century?’

The evidence can be downloaded here.

The inquiry explored the extent to which the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which came into force in 1994, remains fit for purpose in 2021. It examined the enforcement of UNCLOS, its dispute resolution mechanisms, and the extent to which is has proved able to adapt to new and emerging challenges, including climate change, autonomous maritime systems, and issues of human rights and human security at sea. It explored the UK’s current policy towards UNCLOS and approach in practice, and considered which international partners and alliances will be important for the UK to address these challenges and uphold its interests.

The evidence, authored by Scott Edwards, Christian Bueger, Tim Edmunds, Basil Germond, Tobias Liebetrau & Jan Stockbruegger, foregrounded political and security factors when reviewing the status of UNCLOS and its capacity to deal with contemporary challenges at sea. It argued that UNCLOS continues to serve the interests of the UK and other maritime powers, and that contemporary questions for UNCLOS therefore primarily concern its implementation in the face of new challenges. The evidence explored state-sponsored challenges, climate change, blue crimes, and undersea cables.

It recommended that addressing these challenges will entail amendments or additions to existing international treaties, legal and maritime law enforcement capacity building with partner states, the strengthening or maritime security cooperation and information sharing arrangements between states and within regions, and the sharing and implementation of lessons learned and best practices (for example from piracy prosecutions) between regions and across issue areas. Specifically, it focused on collective seapower, leadership in the UNSC, a renewed role for NATO, MDA and operational coordination and capacity building, and a new subsea cable regime.

The committee received 45 written evidence submissions, including from SafeSeas network members Douglas Guilfoyle, Richard Barnes, and Robert McCabe. All submissions can be found here:

Maritime Insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea: Ghana’s Actual Maritime Crime Picture

Despite the magnitude and implications of transnational organized crime at sea, until recently, the problem had received only minimal attention. That is surprising considering its far-reaching consequences on coastal communities, and its direct correlation to national security. Transnational organized crime at sea, or ‘blue crimes’ include trafficking of arms and light weapons, humans and narcotics, environmental crimes that destroy ecosystems, piracy and armed robbery at sea, and territorial crimes that breach the laws and rules governing territories and jurisdictions.

Blue crimes, often perpetrated by criminals that operate across coastal countries and networks, also have negative implications on the economic prosperity and wellbeing of individuals in coastal communities; more broadly, on the human security of coastal states along the Gulf of Guinea. Ghana is substantially affected by various manifestations of these types of crimes. Specifically, acts of piracy, stowing away, human trafficking, narcotics trafficking and illegal importation of medicines, arms smuggling and illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing. In sum, the policy paper examines the true blue crimes picture in Ghana. Read the in-depth analysis of the subject in a report by the AMARIS project. Access the whole report here.

Policy brief – Negotiating Capacity Building: The case of maritime security projects in Ghana

The Gulf of Guinea is a global hotspot for maritime insecurity. Ghana, a country in this region, has had its share of blue crime in its waters. This makes it a relevant object of study partly because the country continues to suffer acts of maritime insecurity, including piracy. At the same time, it is also experiencing a major push by external actors interested in helping to strengthen maritime security, with specific focus on piracy. Although piracy is the main focus of external actors’ maritime security engagements, it is neither the only nor necessarily the most pressing maritime security challenge Ghana is confronted with. For Ghanaian coastal communities, and in several other Gulf of Guinea (GoG) states, for instance, illegal fishing represents a bigger challenge to livelihoods, jobs and food security.

To combat maritime insecurity in Ghana, many external actors prefer maritime capacity building as a method of engagement. Through this intervention, external actors, such as the European Union (EU), the United Nations (UN), the United States of America (USA) or individual EU countries, assist Ghana (and other GoG states) with the aim of strengthening various capacities needed to improve maritime security. Capacity building can take various forms, ranging from training to donations of equipment, such as computers or patrol boats. In short, the policy paper examines capacity building negotiations in Ghana. Read an in-depth analysis of the matter in a report by the AMARIS project. Access the report here.

Beyond Competition: Why the U.S. must cooperate with China and Russia for Maritime Stability

By Jan Stockbruegger and Christian Bueger

Great power competition with China and Russia dominates debates in Washington. Few analysts therefore paid attention when U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken joined Russian President Vladimir Putin and other leaders at the UN Security Council for a high-level debate on “Enhancing Maritime Security — A Case for International Cooperation” (China was represented by its UN ambassador). As expected, disagreements over basic maritime rules and norms dominated the debate. While the United States criticized Russia and China for unlawfully restricting freedom of navigation, China accused the United States of escalating conflict in the South China Sea. Yet the debate also demonstrated that the leading states share a common view on other maritime threats. The United States agreed with China and Russia not only that piracy, smuggling, and climate change undermine stability at sea, but also that states need to work closely together to address these threats and protect global maritime trade. What does this consensus suggest for U.S. strategy?

We argue that the United States should build on the consensus reached during the UN Security Council debate to enhance global maritime security, working multilaterally with China, Russia, and other states to address criminal and environmental threats at sea. The United States has traditionally protected trade routes and freedom of navigation. Securing the maritime commons is also part of the 2020 Tri-Service Maritime Strategy to maintain order at sea. Yet the U.S. Navy cannot secure the world’s oceans without the support of other states, including China and Russia. Certainly, little agreement can be expected with China and Russia on maritime disputes or their use of gray zone tactics to undermine international rules. However, China and Russia depend on seaborne trade, and they are keen to fight piracy and other threats to shipping and stability at sea. Strengthening collaboration with China and Russia on diplomatic and technical levels will therefore be vital to protect global maritime trade.

The case of maritime security has broader implications for U.S. strategy. The United States needs to defend the rules-based order against China and Russia, but it also needs to work with its adversaries to address transnational challenges such as climate change and pandemics. The maritime security case demonstrates that this balancing act is possible. The United States can – and must – both compete and cooperate with its adversaries to secure the global commons. Below we draw on the Security Council debate to analyze the maritime security landscape. We identify the joint interests of China, Russia, and the United States in protecting maritime trade, and we show how the United States can cooperate with its adversaries to ensure safety and security at sea.

Maritime competition is back

One of the reasons for the new urgency of maritime matters is the rise of maritime great power competition and the proliferation of gray zone tactics and attacks at sea. China’s growing naval and anti-access/area denial capabilities threaten U.S. dominance in the Western Pacific, but Iran and Russia have also increased their military operations at sea. China, Russia, and Iran have so far refrained from conducting aggressive maritime operations that could escalate conflict with the U.S. Navy. However, they increasingly conduct covert operations and deploy civilian or irregular forces – such as fishing vessels, coast guards, and militias – to intimidate other states and harass U.S. and allied forces at sea.

An incident that is paradigmatic for this new trend is the drone attack on the Israeli owned oil tanker MV Mercer Street in the Gulf of Oman only days before the debate. The attack, in which two sailors were killed, was the latest in a series of maritime incidents in the shadow war between Israel and Iran. An Iranian vessel was hit by a mine in the Red Sea in April 2021, for instance, and the United States believes that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards were behind attacks on four tankers in the Persian Gulf in 2019.

Yet China and Russia have also used gray zone tactics to secure contested waters. China has built military outposts in the South China Sea, and it regularly deploys its coast guard and maritime militias to protect Chinese fishing vessels in disputed waters. China’s maritime forces have harassed Filipino and Vietnamese fishing vessels, as well as the USNS Impeccable, a surveillance vessel operated by the U.S. Navy. Russia has deployed its coast guard to secure waters around the Crimean Peninsula, which it annexed from Ukraine in 2014. In 2018, the Russian Coast Guard captured three Ukrainian Navy vessels in the Sea of Azov.

China’s, Russia’s, and Iran’s gray zone tactics threaten vital U.S. and global interests in the maritime domain. U.S. Secretary of State Blinken therefore warned that “Conflict in the South China Sea or in any ocean would have serious global consequences for security and for commerce,” and that “States are (…) provocatively and unlawfully advancing their interests in the Persian Gulf and the Black Sea.” Russia largely ignored these accusations, but China responded angrily. China not only claimed that the “Security Council is not the right place to discuss the issue of the South China Sea,” but it also accused the United States of undermining “peace and stability in the South China Sea.”

Piracy is a major concern, but other crimes matter too

While China and Russia contest freedom of navigation, piracy remains a bigger threat to global shipping. From 2005 to 2012, Somali pirates attacked nearly 1,000 vessels in the Gulf of Aden and Western Indian Ocean. The World Bank estimated that piracy off Somalia cost the global economy $18 billion annually. Somali piracy has since been eliminated, but piracy remains a major threat in Southeast Asia and West Africa. According to the ICC International Maritime Bureau, an industry body, 195 ships were attacked by pirates worldwide in 2020.Last year, pirates kidnapped 130 seamen in the Gulf of Guinea, which is the world’s epicenter for maritime kidnappings.

Piracy is part of the larger problem of “blue crime,” which also includes illicit migration, maritime smuggling, and other criminal activities at sea. Human trafficking is a major problem in the Mediterranean, for example, where hundreds of migrants have drowned over the last few years. Smuggling of narcotics fuels corruption and drug abuse and led to increased rates of addiction, HIV/AIDS infection, and domestic violence in coastal communities in the Indian Ocean and other regions. Additionally, the smuggling of small arms and light weapons, which fuel conflict from Afghanistan to Somalia, often relies on maritime routes. A number of other illicit cargos are trafficked at sea, including counterfeit products, antiquities, wildlife, hardwood timber, and waste. Armed groups such as al-Shababa sometimes tax maritime smuggling activities to fund their operations.

In contrast to gray zone tactics, there is broad consensus among leading states that blue crime is a major threat to stability at sea. Ambassador Dai Bing, China’s representative at the UN Security Council, noted that “Criminal activities such as piracy, armed robbery, human and drug trafficking at sea, and maritime weapon smuggling are rampant, all of which have further destabilized relevant regions.” U.S. Secretary of State Blinken agrees: “Non-state actors also pose serious risk to maritime safety and security, from pirates and illicit maritime traffickers in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, to pirates and armed robbers in the Gulf of Guinea, to drug traffickers in the Caribbean Sea and the Eastern Pacific.”

The environmental security agenda has arrived at sea

The emphasis on blue crime is not surprising given the centrality of piracy and trafficking to the maritime security agenda. Yet the degree to which Security Council members emphasized environmental challenges was noteworthy. Two issues featured prominently in the Security Council debate: illegal fishing and climate change. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing is perhaps the most prevalent environmental crime at sea. It includes not only fishing in the waters of a state without its permission, but also fishing in marine protected areas and other fishing practices that are prohibited under national laws or international conventions. Interpol has estimated that up to USD 23.5 billion is lost to illegal fishing each year. Illegal fishing also leads to overfishing and threatens the livelihoods of coastal communities. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi therefore urged council members to “take joint steps against overfishing and marine poaching.”

Analysts also increasingly worry about the impact of climate change on the marine environment and coastal economies. The warming of the oceans, for instance, will weaken ecosystems and alter the abundance, diversity, and distribution of marine species. Furthermore, climate change increases the risk of flooding and other natural disasters, and threatens coastal ports, infrastructures, and communities. Other threats to the marine environment include pollution and oil spills from ships (e.g. the 2020 Wakashio oil spill) and offshore petroleum operations (e.g. the 2020 Deepwater Horizon oil spill). Vietnam warned the Security Council that “climate change and sea level rise and pollution of the marine environment, especially by plastic debris and degradation of the marine ecosystem, have caused serious and long-term consequences.”

Cooperation is the Strategy

No state, not even the United States, is strong enough to protect the world’s oceans alone. The oceans cover 70 percent of the earth’s surface. Every day, thousands of vessels pass through contested waters, and maritime smuggling, illegal fishing, and rising sea levels threaten coastal communities and maritime operations around the world. These threats are transnational. Pirates attack vessels in international waters, smugglers operate across national jurisdictions,  and oil spills and illegal fishing operations often take place in internationally recognized protected areas. Securing the world’s oceans therefore requires states to cooperate and build international maritime infrastructure. This includes coast guard and maritime patrol vessels, communication and surveillance networks, and systems to manage marine resources and respond to accidents and environmental disasters at sea.

The United States has long led international efforts to enhance safety and security at sea. The United States initiated the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia, for example, and it also facilitated the adaptation of the 2004 International Ship and Port Facility Security Code at the International Maritime Organization. In West Africa and Southeast Asia, the United States helps regional states strengthen their maritime capacities and protect their waters against piracy and illicit fishing and trafficking operations.

Yet China and Russia have also joined international efforts to protect maritime trade. They have participated in the Contact Group on Somali piracy and deployed naval forces to protect international shipping in the Gulf of Aden. Moreover, China is a member of the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAPP), while Russia has participated in debates on maritime security at the ASEAN Regional Forum.

During the Security Council debate, China promised “to deepen pragmatic cooperation in combating piracy and maritime law enforcement in our joint efforts to achieve peace and tranquility in the oceans.” And Russian President Vladimir Putin not only reaffirmed Russia’s commitment “to the common task of countering crime at sea in all its forms,” but he also proposed the creation of a “special structure within the UN that would directly address problems related to combatting maritime crime in various regions.”

Beyond competition

The United States should take Russia’s and China’s offers seriously and work with its adversaries to protect the maritime commons. China and Russia will not support efforts to address maritime disputes, gray zone tactics, or illegal fishing in contested waters. Yet they are interested in working with the United States and other states to tackle piracy and maritime crime, and perhaps also to address environmental threats such as climate change and pollution.

Maritime security cooperation with China and Russia can be difficult. China was initially reluctant to share information and coordinate closely with U.S.-led counter-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden. The United States should therefore follow up on Russia’s proposal at the UN Security Council and establish a high-level political framework for maritime security operations. The United States could, for example, help construct a new technocratic mechanism at the UN to facilitate information sharing and the exchange of best practices in maritime governance and capacity building. The organization’s mandate would be limited to non-controversial issues such as piracy, trafficking, pollution, and climate change. China might agree to discussing maritime security in the Persian Gulf, where most of its oil originates; but illegal fishing and maritime disputes in the South China Sea would need to be excluded to ensure its support for the mechanism. International organizations, civil society, and industry groups should also be included to reinforce the technocratic and problem-driven nature of the initiative. The UN mechanism would complement ongoing regional efforts by providing a forum for global coordination and helping to form a broad consensus on maritime security governance across regions.

Critics might argue that China and Russia will exploit maritime security cooperation to project naval power and increase their geopolitical influence. China, for example, used counter-piracy operations to practice forward deployment and establish its first overseas naval base in Djibouti. China and Russia are also trying to dominate international organizations and undermine U.S. interests by supporting authoritarian regimes. Moreover, critics might argue that the proposed mechanism does not address China’s and Russia’s efforts to undermine the rule of law at sea, which are the greatest threat to order and stability on the world’s oceans.

These counterarguments are valid, but they ignore the fact that China and Russia are too powerful and important to be excluded from global maritime governance. China is already the largest investor and trading nation in Africa and Southeast Asia, and Russia has increased its global influence in recent years. Moreover, China’s and Russia’s large navies can help protect dangerous shipping lanes and support coastal management and maritime capacity building activities. Working with China and Russia on countering maritime crime does not prevent the United States from defending its interests and protecting global maritime rules and norms. The United States can continue its freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, for example, and mobilize like-minded nations through initiatives such as the Quad or the G7.

Finally, facilitating global maritime security cooperation under U.S. leadership with support from like-minded states, including the EU and India, would legitimize and help stabilize international order. It would demonstrate that U.S.-leadership is not exclusively directed against China or Russia, or about dominance. Instead, the United States would show that it takes seriously the concerns and problems of other nations, and that it is prepared to work with its adversaries to provide global public goods.

The maritime security case shows that the Biden administration needs to move beyond great power competition as its guide to foreign policy. Challenging threats to the rules-based order, no matter where they originate, is vitally important; but the United States also must cooperate with its adversaries, especially China and Russia, to secure the global commons and tackle other transnational threats, such as climate change and global pandemics.

This Commentary was originally published by CIMSEC, on 9.11.201.

SafeSeas visits UK’s Joint Maritime Security Centre

SafeSeas’ Scott Edwards and Tim Edmunds visited the UK’s Joint Maritime Security Centre (JMSC) in Portsdown on 6th October 2021. The visit followed the publication of their paper, written with Christian Bueger, in the RUSI Journal. Titled ‘Innovation and New Strategic Choices: Refreshing the UK’s National Strategy for Maritime Security’, the paper analysed the UK’s maritime security architecture at which the JMSC is at the centre.

The JMSC was formed in 2020 and provides the UK with one dedicated ‘centre of excellence’ of maritime security. Incorporating the National Maritime Information Centre and Joint Maritime Operations Coordination Centre, the JMSC works across multiple government departments and agencies to coordinate the UK’s maritime security responses, both nationally and globally.

This whole-of-government approach is necessary because of the range of different organisations and authorities engaged in maritime security tasks, across departments as diverse as the Home Office, MoD, DEFRA, DfT, FCDO and Marine Scotland amongst others. Coordinating between such a wide range of departments, each with their own priorities and interests, is not straightforward, and requires significant trust-building between agencies.

The JMSC’s work in this area is facilitated by a number of features:

  • First, it is independent from any single department, and jointly resourced between them. This independence allows it to provide an environment where agencies work together on equal footing towards their (sometimes different) priorities without any one agenda dominating.
  • Second, it is jointly staffed by a range of Whitehall departments and agencies. By bringing staff together into one organisation, the JMSC aims to construct a collective sense of purpose between relevant stakeholders, while retaining their individual agency identities.
  • Third, it has a primarily operational focus, bringing together different groups of practitioners around common problems and tasks. This has allowed the centre to side-step more politically charged issues such as inter-agency competition or resource allocation.
  • Finally, the Centre facilitates cross-departmental/agency information sharing through the Royal Navy’s Maritime Domain Awareness programme and individual agency information sources. Information sharing both builds trust in and of itself, but also contributes to a common understanding of threat and priority.

There are challenges to this structure, however. A consequence of the JMSC’s independence, for example, is that it is not ‘owned’ by a single ministry and is therefore jointly funded. Maintaining the JMSC’s activities requires political will to ensure the necessary funding continues past the current short term funding cycle on which it currently relies.

There are other areas where the JMSC demonstrates its value beyond its trust-building, information-sharing, and the ability to quickly respond to crises. The centre also serves a diplomatic function, for example. It has developed international relationships with other information centres such as the IFC in Singapore and national partners. Through this, it has the potential to be an important actor in the UK’s ambition to develop relationships in the Indo-Pacific.

The Indo-Pacific faces significant issues of maritime insecurity, and countries are forming their own coordinated maritime security agencies in response. The JMSC serves as an example of successful coordination and information-sharing, and lessons learnt have the potential to be shared with regional partners – increasing the UK’s influence over maritime security responses in the region.

In relation to this, Scott and Tim discussed SafeSeas’ current research on the Indo-Pacific and the fragmentation of regional responses to issues of maritime insecurity. The discussion specifically centred on the implications of this fragmentation, and the likelihood of more centralised cooperation in future. They also discussed their research on inter-agency coordination in Southeast Asia, due to the regional coordination bodies facing similar challenges to the JMSC.

Scott and Tim also visited the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Information Centre (MTIC) which administers the UK Maritime Trade Organisation (UKMTO) and the Maritime Domain Awareness Trade – Gulf of Guinea (MDAT-GOG) initiative in partnership with the French Navy. The MTIC is a Royal Navy capability with the principal purpose of providing an information conduit between security forces and the wider international maritime trade. With strong relationships with the shipping industry, the MTIC is able to inform relevant regional authorities and warn and advise vessels in the near vicinity of any incidents.

Traditionally closed off to outsiders, shipping companies from across the world share information with the MTIC as their vessels pass through areas of high risk so that it can assist in responding swiftly to problems. With these strong relationships with the shipping industry, the MTIC is able to inform relevant regional authorities and warn and advise vessels in the near vicinity of any incidents. Such a reputation has taken time to develop, and there is currently no other similar mechanism elsewhere, making it an essential conduit for information across the maritime sector as a whole.

Event – Trading Waste: The UK Ghana Route and the Illicit E Waste Economy

The Partnership for Conflict, Crime & Security Research, the Centre for Maritime Law & Security, and SafeSeas are hosting a webinar on ‘Trading Waste: The UK Ghana Route and the Illicit E Waste Economy’. The event will be held online at 12.00 GMT, on the 20th October.

Register here:

Chaired by Dr. Kamal-Deen Ali, the event features Kanchelli Iddrisu (University of Cambridge), Professor Brenda Chalfin (University of Florida), Dr. Irekpitan Okukpon (Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies), Dr Dagna Rams (Université
de Lausanne), Professor Henrik Vigh (University of Copenhagen), and Lawrence Kotoe (Environmental Protection Agency, Ghana).

The Global South has a problem with other people’s electronic waste. The world produces as much as 50 million tonnes of e-waste per year – over six kilogrammes for every person on the planet. Of this, only around 20 per cent is recycled. The rest is disposed of in landfill or informally recycled, often by hand, in countries in the Global South. Such work exposes workers, sometimes children, to hazardous and carcinogenic substances including mercury, lead and cadmium. E-waste in landfill can pollute soil and groundwater and put food supply systems and water sources at risk. A significant proportion of this waste is exported illegally to avoid costly environmental regulation and health and safety requirements.

In 2021, UKRI’s Partnership for Conflict Crime and Security Research commissioned a project to examine the UK-Ghana trade in e-waste, in partnership with the Centre for Maritime Law and Security Africa (CEMLAWS) and SafeSeas. The project zoomed in on eight different sites along the UK-Ghana e-waste trade route, starting with the manufacture of goods, following their journey through consumption, disposal, export, import and recycling, and ending with the reexport of scrap metal from Ghana. The result was a report published in July 2021.

This panel brings together leading experts on the global waste trade to discuss the report findings and reflect on their wider implications for environmental governance, maritime security and the fight against organised crime. In so doing it addresses questions:

  • How much do we know about the global e-waste trade? Where are the main data gaps?
  • What is the extent of organised criminal involvement in the global e-waste trade?
  • How can (and should) the global trade in e-waste best be tackled? Are new capacities, regulations and countermeasures required?

Beyond Triple Invisibility: Do Submarine Data Cables Require Better Security?

By Christian Bueger and Tobias Liebetrau.

Submarine data cables are the core critical infrastructure of the digital age. 99 percent of the world’s digital communications transit through the global cable network: Zoom meetings, emails, hotel reservations, flight bookings, and financial transactions depend on it. All of this data does not travel through satellites or the air, but physical fiber-optic cables that lay on the ocean floor. With the current trend toward remote work, the increasing use of cloud storage and the arrival of 5G and the Internet of Things, industrial production, public services, and our everyday lives will become even more dependent on the smooth working of undersea cables.

The global submarine cable network needs to be governed and protected, but it also has risks and vulnerabilities, and indeed the potential to spur new forms of tensions and conflicts. To date, the network has mainly been viewed in narrow, technical terms, despite its importance for national and international security, geopolitics, and statebuilding and development.

Security Concerns

While protecting and controlling submarine communication infrastructure was a core part of security calculations during the two World Wars as well as the Cold War, in the post-Cold War environment uncontested US naval hegemony and the primacy of non-state threats moved such issues to the margins.

Renewed concerns center around the rise of hybrid warfare, the perceived hostility of Russia’s foreign policy, fears of a large-scale cyber-attack, and the growing technical sophistication of terrorist groups. Some experts have begun to consider the undersea cable network as a national security priority and have called for military responses to mitigate such threats, including increased naval patrols and surveillance activities.

The calls were largely triggered by observations of Russian submarine activities in territorial waters and in proximity to cable routes—which became public in 2015—raising concerns that the Russian navy may tap into cables for espionage and surveillance purposes, tamper with them, or even cut them as part of a hybrid warfare campaign.

Others suggest that undersea cables are inherently susceptible to attacks from non-state violent groups and terrorism since their location is usually public, cables tend to be highly concentrated geographically, and the level of technical expertise and resources required to damage them is limited.

So far, no intentional hostile disruptions to the submarine cable infrastructure have been reported publicly. The scenarios underpinning the threat discourse seem to be built not on prior incidents but on overall assessments of the geopolitical landscape. Arguably, this implies that the threat scenarios being discussed could be exaggerated and suggests a substantial risk of threat inflation and fearmongering.

The Geopolitics of Submarine Cables

Cable systems establish particular forms of transnational relations that often extend or transcend conventional bilateral or regional forms of cooperation. Some countries have a particularly important position in the international cable system, acting as connecting points between political regions.

Cables are, however, increasingly spurring geopolitical concerns. Contemporary geopolitical dynamics concerning the new fiber-optic cables are particularly revealing in at least two regards: the return of geopolitical inter-state contestation and the rise of transnational technology companies as geopolitical players.

Geopolitical competition primarily revolves around two centers of gravity—the United States and China—but pledges to digital sovereignty, technological sovereignty, cyber sovereignty, and data sovereignty are increasingly seen throughout the world.

One example of the geopolitical importance of the submarine cable network and its entanglement with digital sovereignty is the Clean Network Program, announced by the United States (US) in August 2020, which includes five lines of effort—in addition to 5G—to counter China’s influence on US telecommunication networks, mobile app stores, software apps, cloud computing, and undersea cables. The goal of the program is to safeguard sensitive citizen and private company information from intrusions by malign actors.

In Europe, the Portuguese government announced earlier this year that it intends to “focus on the strategic creation of a European Data Entry Platform based on submarine cables, in particular for links between Europe, Africa, and South America, to contribute to greater European digital autonomy, linking infrastructures and data.”

It is, however, not only Western countries that are occupied with the crucial geopolitical role of undersea cables. While discussions among BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) of a shared undersea cable system appear to have been abandoned, major international players, including individual BRICS countries, either have or are planning to build their own submarine cable networks, to bypass what they perceive to be the US-dominated internet and associated surveillance risks demonstrated by the Snowden revelations. The expansion of the cable system is part of the Chinese “Digital Silk Road” strategy.

The rise of transnational Information, Communication, and Technology (ICT) companies is intrinsically entangled with the geopolitics of emerging and disruptive digital technologies and infrastructures, as well as the renewed great power rivalry. The entanglement is evident when thinking of the undersea cable network as an economic trade route carrying the most important commodity of the information age: data.

Until recently, highly specialized international telecommunications conglomerates laid and operated most of the undersea cables, but over the past decade, it is increasingly American tech giants or other state-owned companies that control this critical infrastructure. Internet content and cloud service providers, such as Facebook or Google, now own or lease more than half of the undersea bandwidth and they are behind about four-fifths of transatlantic cable investment planned in 2019-2020. The Chinese company Huawei has also heavily invested in undersea cable systems all over the world. Huawei Marine, its submarine cable subsidiary, deployed over 50,000 kilometers of submarine cable, including 12 submarine cable systems in Africa from 2008 to 2018, before being sold in 2019.

Such trends raise concerns over digital sovereignty, but also the practices of surveillance, algorithmic governance, and cyber security that shape and are shaped by global tech companies. It also raises the question of whether the cable network can be governed as a global common.

Small States and Fragile States

The cable issue goes beyond the industrialized nations that have hitherto been the center of attention. States require stable connectivity for future growth, but they are often dependent on a single, sometimes badly secured cable connection. Breakdowns can lead to major economic harms.

States that are particularly vulnerable are those that are reliant on one or two cables, are in remote locations, such as small island states, or are developing or recovering economically. In 2019, accidental damage to the single cable connecting the Pacific Island state of Tonga took two weeks to repair and caused considerable economic damage. The tourism sector—the country’s main source of income—was hit particularly hard, with all flight and hotel bookings halted.

Cable protection also concerns fragile states and those recovering from civil war. The importance of cable infrastructures for democratic transitions and participation of civil society should not be underestimated. There is hence a need to feature cable governance into statebuilding, interventions, and post-conflict reconstruction programs. Whether and how violent conflict and terrorism can directly threaten the system—intentionally or not—is also of concern.

Whether it concerns small island states or post-conflict states, efforts to secure submarine cable connections should be included in development, peacebuilding, and capacity-building projects.

Protecting The Undersea Cable Network

While many of the threat scenarios of deliberate attacks to cables are over-exaggerated, there is a need to zoom in on the actual vulnerabilities the network faces, mainly accidental damage and non-human hazards. Accidents or malfunctions stemming from marine activities such as fishing and shipping account for at least 40 percent of the damage done to the undersea cable infrastructure. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, landslides, and sharks feature among the non-human threats. Much of the protection of the cables will continue to revolve around mundane technical tasks.

Other vulnerabilities are linked to weak governance, lack of law enforcement, and the absence of effective regulatory policies. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)—the primary legal regime governing submarine cables—states are asked to establish national legislation concerning the functioning and protection of the system, including criminalizing the destruction of theft of a submarine cable. Yet most states have not fulfilled these obligations, and in many countries, it is unclear which government agencies are in charge. There is an urgent need for countries to review their protection regimes and strengthen the implementation of existing legal obligations.

Submarine cables must also be considered in broader maritime management and marine spatial planning processes. States could, for instance, establish cable protection zones over submarine cables of national significance in order to prohibit or restrict activities in zones where damage is likely to occur. While such approaches are viable within territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zones of a coastal state, the majority of cables are in the high seas, and rights and responsibilities under international law—both of states and ICTs—are ambiguous at best. There is even no agreed-upon definition of cables under international law. Other challenges arise in situations where maritime boundaries have not been delineated or are subject to ongoing contestation and disputes. No international governing body is in charge of overseeing and protecting cables or addressing disputes.

Legal analysts suggest that an ideal solution would be the development of an international treaty specifically on the protection of undersea cables, for which there appears to be little appetite. Other suggestions for enhancing the regulatory regime span using the structure of the UN counterterrorism conventions over proposals for the creation of national cable protection zones, to the deployment of an international agency rooted in the UN system with legal and policy responsibility for submarine cables, which could lead the development of additional law. The negotiation of the new treaty for the high seas under the header of Biodiversity beyond National Jurisdictions could also potentially provide new opportunities for cable protection in international waters.

Overcoming The Triple Invisibility Problem

Physically, submarine cables lay underground, and they are out at sea, rendering them largely invisible. There is a tendency to pay little attention to what happens at sea more generally—a phenomenon that has been described as sea blindness.

Like other types of infrastructure, they often go unnoticed until they fail. It is when streets close, shipping routes are blocked, or the electric power grid fails that we recognize our dependency on them.

Given that data is the defining resource of the twenty-first century, protecting submarine cables is far too essential a domain of international politics to remain a technical addendum to security studies. It concerns how our digital futures will be governed, and how a global free, open, and secure circulation of data can be ensured.

A debate is required on how cables should be governed at the global level, how the different actors can be orchestrated, the industry is regulated, responsibilities and rights are clarified, and which global governance and United Nations bodies are in charge.

This commentary was originally published by the Global Observatory, 15.9.2021


Photo by Fairphone/Closing The Loop. Under Creative Commons license “Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike CC BY-NC-SA.”

Download the report here

This new report, a collaboration between the Partnership for Conflict, Crime and Security Research (PaCCS), the Centre for Maritime Law and Security Africa, and SafeSeas, explores the extent, nature, and impact of the e-waste trade between the UK and Ghana by mapping sites along this route. These sites act as categories in which key actors in the e-waste trade have been grouped in order to understand their significance, how they interact, how the illicit aspect of the e-waste trade is formed, and the main factors that drive this trade.

Authored by Kanchelli Iddrisu, the research consists of a literature review, interviews with 44 individuals and representatives from institutions in the UK and Ghana, and surveys handed out to these interviewees.

It makes a number of conclusions, including:

the domestic consumption of imported new and used electronics in Ghana is a major source of e-waste, with this site of e-waste generation being overlooked in much of the existing literature;

poverty is the underlying factor of the unregulated e-waste trade, and there are not enough interventions acknowledging and addressing this; the question of whether illicit e-waste operations can be categorised as ‘serious organised crime’ (SOC) requires more research;

and there needs to be a deeper understanding of the risks, harms and consequences of these activities, in order to determine the resources that should be allocated to fighting this trade.

Based on this, it makes a number of recommendations, including:

Ghana should decentralise institutions linked to reducing e-waste flows, with a stronger focus on regions in the North of Ghana; namely the Upper West, Upper East, North East, Savannah and Northern regions;

Digitisation of data should be improved across institutions to increase access to e-waste statistics;

Enforcement agencies and prosecutors should be more aware of the crimes that are concealed or made possible due to the logistical network that the e-waste trade provides;

The return of shipments of e-waste back to the UK should be facilitated;

and UK manufacturers and consumers should be made more aware of their role in this trade.

Kanchelli Iddrisu is a researcher and PhD student in Education at the University of Cambridge. Her doctoral research focuses on youth unemployment in Ghana, examining the responses young people have to this issue. She also works in a law firm, specialising in anti-corruption research in West Africa. Kanchelli holds an LLB from Kings College London, an LPC/LLM from the University of Law and an MPhil in Education, Globalisation and International Development from the University of Cambridge.

This project was commissioned by the Partnership for Conflict, Crime and Security Research (PaCCS). It involved a placement with the Centre for Maritime Law and Security Africa, based in Accra, Ghana. Interviews and surveys were used to scope out the extent, nature and impact of e-waste smuggling on the UK to Ghana route. This project was supervised by Dr Tristram Riley-Smith (PaCCS Research Integrator), Professor Tim Edmunds (Safe Seas Co-Director), and Dr Kamal-Deen Ali (Executive Director of the Centre for Maritime Law and Security Africa).

New report – ‘What we know about maritime environmental crime’

What We Know About Maritime Environmental Crime is the third in a series of reports as part of the Transnational Organized Crime at Sea: New Evidence for Better Responses project. The project is a collaboration between SafeSeas, Stable Seas, and the One Earth Future Foundation. It is funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) Partnership for Conflict, Crime and Security Research (PaCCS) and the One Earth Future Foundation.

Download the report here

Similar to our previous report on piracy, and report on maritime illicit trades, this paper provides an overview of what we know about maritime environmental crimes, how data is collected, what information is available, and which organizations are analyzing these data.

The paper focuses specifically on three crimes which together make up the most visible and emblematic examples of maritime environmental crime: marine pollution; illegal mining, resource extraction, and dredging; and fisheries crimes. The scope of maritime environmental crime is broader than just these three, yet the breadth and relative infrequency of other environmental crimes mean that significantly less data is available on the others.

The paper finds that available data about maritime environmental crime is fragmented by issue and geography, and most typically focuses on the aggregate results of the crimes rather than direct monitoring of criminal activity. Data gaps should be identified and acknowledged to help guide future collection and in order to overcome the current imbalance towards collecting data on certain forms of maritime crime.

More efforts should also be made to aggregate data, especially around different forms of pollution and various fisheries crimes, to better recognize convergences and synergies.

The report was authored by Tyler Lycan and Lexie Van Buskirk, with contributions from Professor Christian Bueger, Professor Timothy Edmunds, Dr. Scott Edwards, and Dr. Conor Seyle