The New Public Face of the Contact Group

By Christian Bueger

The Contact Group goes public

The Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS), the main governance arrangement for coordinating and organizing the global fight against piracy, has finally launched its website today. As was  announced in a UN press declaration the website will serve as a “cyber secretariat offering a sphere of communication for Contact Group participants; a database storing Contact Group documents and other piracy-related materials; and an information centre promoting the work of the Contact Group to the general public.”  The website will be jointly operated by the Republic of Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The website makes for the first time the documents of the Contact Group’s plenary, its five working groups and its Trust Fund (meeting protocols, declarations) available to the public. It explains the work of the CGCPS in digestible terms in an About section and a FAQ. It provides a list of links to the main other organizations dealing with piracy. The CGPCS completes its public face, with a Facebook and a Youtube account. For an international organization the website is quite impressive in the way it organizes its material and it will indeed be an important tool to make the work of CGCPS transparent. Moreover, it will become a valuable tool for researchers observing and analyzing the work of the Contact Group.

The creation of a “virtual secretariat” however also creates some room for speculating about whether this is a sign of an ongoing institutionalization of counter-piracy on an international level. Are we facing the seeds of a new international organization, the International Counter-Piracy Organization (ICPO), perhaps?

Background on the Contact Group

The Contact Group was established in January 2009  and was an outgrowth of Security Council Resolution 1851, which called upon states to coordinate their counter-piracy activities. Upon its establishment it organized itself into a plenary and four working groups. In 2009 its work was complemented by a Trust Fund, a funding device for counter-piracy projects, and in 2011 it was complemented by a fifth working group. The Contact Group was originally launched as an initative of 24 states. Since then membership has considerably been expanded. Further states joined the group, as did international organizations, and a growing number of industry associations  joined the meetings as observers. Today the Group is formally comprised of 70 member states, and 19 international organizations (inter-governmental and private). In addition, several experts and representatives from entities such as the government of Somaliland and Puntland participate in the meetings of the Group. As James Kraska remarked, the Contact group is “the broadest coalition of nations ever gathered to develop and coordinate practical solutions to the scourge of maritime piracy” (Kraska 2011: 160).

The Contact Group lists as its main successes so far the following:

“Since its establishment, the CGPCS has served as an excellent forum for international cooperation and coordination to fight against piracy off the coast of Somalia. Through its working groups it has facilitated military coordination off the coast of Somalia, development of Best Management Practices (BMPs) for the self-protection of the industry, and establishment of the IMO Djibouti Code of Conduct Trust Fund and the International Trust Fund to Support Initiatives of States Countering Piracy off the Coast of Somalia.”

As can bee seen from this summary, the Contact Group has produced some tangible output, and one can add to this list some less visible outputs, such as a) the elaboration and clarification of a legal tool kit to address piracy, b) the preperation of several UN Security Council statements and resolutions or c) trust and confidence building among participating states and international organizations.

In the language of international relations, the Contact Group can be described as a “new governance” arrangement. It can be understood as  new governance because of several features: The CGCPS is problem oriented in that its mandate is focussed on finding solutions to a distinct problematic situation, piracy in the Gulf of Aden. It is output oriented, in attempting to find workable and practical solutions. It is ad hoc, in that it limits itself to one problematic situations and relates its future to the development of the problem. It is informal, in the sense that work only relies on weak procedural rules and structures. It is network-centered and non-hierarchical, since it gives equal status to participants, allows for participation of actors with different status (states, IOs, industry), tries to be inclusive, does not establish or rely on a hierarchy among its participants and is centered on deliberation and identifying problem solutions. Finally, it includes private actors  and hence is a form of private-public governance. And one is tempted to add: it is “new governance”, since it has a virtual secretariat and experiments with web 2.0.

As Douglas Guilfoyle (2011) has argued in a recent working paper, the rationale for addressing piracy in the frame of such an arrangement was firstly that no other forum or organization had an adequate mandate (the IMO or UNODC’s mandate being under inclusive, while the Security Council’s over inclusive). Secondly, “such transnational  governance networks have  certain obvious advantages. They can act and adapt  quickly  and  can  be  a  valuable  way  of  sharing  experience  and  promoting  open-ended deliberation as regards a common problem (albeit one faced in a variety of different national legal  contexts). Rather  than  imposing  internationally-negotiated  one  size  fits  all  solutions, they  may  allow  national  law  mechanisms  and  legal  authorities  to  be  coordinated  to  deliver unexpected  efficiencies  or  to  explore  a  range  of  possible  solutions  before  identifying  and disseminating best practice” (Guilfoyle 2011: 16).

International relations scholars have shown, that because of such benefits “new governance arrangements” similar to the Contact Group are increasingly used in global politics. Other examples of such arrangements include the G8, the G20, other Contact Groups of donor communities,  or the use of Compacts in Peacebuilding (e.g. Afghanistan Compact or the work of the UN Peacebuilding Commission).

As the literature on these cases has shown, there is also a significant number of disadvantages of new governance arrangements. The first problem is transparency, informal mechanisms tend to be club-like and it is difficult to become informed what is actually discussed or has been decided. This is notably problematic if policies affect populations which are not represented in such forums. Hence the new public face of the CGCPS is a move into the right direction. The second problem is that decisions reached are not legally binding, the  forums may provide much talk with little consequence. The third problem is the lack of accountability, since decision-making is dispersed no actor or entity can be held accountable for a decision. Fourth, such forums tend to be exclusionary (although they claim to be otherwise). The absence of formal participation rules, might lead to the absence of groups who might have important knowledge to cope with the problem or are affected by decisions.

These issues raise the question of whether the CGCPS should be more formalized. This is a question of normative theory in which we would have to weight the functional output of the CGCPS (its success in producing efficient policies and having other benefits) against these problems. A different equally important question is however whether the CGCPS is anyways on its path to a full fledged international organization.

A sign of further institutionalization?

Guilfoyle suggests that the CGCPS is an “activity not an organization” (Guilfoyle 2011:11).  Yet, in theory any regularized activity leads to some form of organization. The CGCPS is now in its second year, meetings are on a regular (often monthly) basis. If it is an activity it is becoming a regularized activity. Over the two years we can see that the CGCPS increasingly establishes something like an organizational identity. The first sign of such an identity was the creation of a shared symbol. That is the CGCPS logo: a green lettering with a blue bird  (pictured above). Arguably, the “virtual secreteriat” with its facebook and youtube pages is a second symbol creating a shared identity. Yet, not only on a symbolic level does the existence of a secretariat (virtual or otherwise) make a difference. It is a step towards institutionalization. How enduring, or lasting the institutionalization will be, however, highly depends on the development of the piracy problem itself.

This concerns, firstly, the question of whether and when Somali piracy will reach a level that can be managed within existing arrangements. If the incident rates drop, and if the participants to CGCPS feel that the work program has been exhaustive, it is likely that no further institutionalization will occur. If, however, piracy incidents continue on the current level (and given the state of Somalia, this is what can be plausibly expected), than the question will be how more can be done or how the current program can be organized more efficiently. Both of these questions will bring about a discussion of further institutionalization.

Secondly, it concerns the question of whether piracy will continue to spread to other regions (recently Western Africa has become a hot spot). If international actors think it is beneficial to address these regions in the frame of the current Contact Group, the CGCPS will not only loose its ad hoc character, but become a more general counter-piracy governance arrangement. Since this will entail to bring in other specialists, experts and partners (on the specific  region), it is likely that it will spur debate on institutionalization.

Finally, piracy is only one of the issues nowadays clustered under the notion of maritime security. Several actors, including the UN Secretary General, have already suggested that piracy should lead to a broader discussion of how the oceans should be governed, and piracy and other threats to maritime security can be prevented. The outcome of this discussion could be in principle the proposal for a new international organization, devoted to piracy, but also other maritime security issues. Then the CGCPS might provide the seeds for such a new international body.

Several factors however speak against the vision that we will soon see an International Counter-Piracy Organization (ICPO).

Firstly, international actors remain very optimistic that piracy can be contained in the short run and that the problem can be discarded from the political agendas. While this won’t imply to eradicate piracy once and for all, it is rather to suggest that East African arrangements (with some Western assistance) will keep piracy to an acceptable level.  Whether this is wishful thinking or not, it won’t lead actors to consider further institutionalization.

Secondly, new international organizations are not easy to set up and usually suffer from inefficiencies and stalemates in their first working years (see in this regard the lesson of founding the UN Peacebuilding Commission as analyzed in Bueger 2011). Moreover, one should not under-estimate the turf wars between international organizations. Founding a new organization would imply that organizations such as UNODC, Interpol, or UNDP and IMO would have to transfer parts of their mandates and activities. It is doubtful that they are willing to do so.

To sum up, ICPO is not going to become reality in the near future. What we will be able to observe is how in the coming years the CGCPS will become more and more a regularized activity that resembles practices of an international organizations. This, however is something that we now can discuss together on the new CGCPS facebook forum.

 Literature and further reading Alter, Karen J, and Sophie Meunier. 2009. The Politics of International Regime Complexity. Perspectives on Politics7 (1): 13-24.

Bueger, Christian. 2011. The clash of practice: political controversy and the United Nations Peacebuilding Commission. Evidence & Policy 7 (2): 171-191.

Gordenker, Leon. 1995. Pluralising global governance: analytical approaches and dimensions. Third World Quarterly 16 (3): 357-388.

Guilfoyle, Douglas. 2011. The Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia: piracy, governance and international law. Paper presented at the workshop “Contemporary Maritime Piracy and the International Response “, Greenwich Maritime institute, London, September 2011.

Hale, T. 2008. Transparency, Accountability, and Global Governance. Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations 14: 73-94.

Kennedy, David. 2008. The Mystery of Global Governance. Ohio Northern University Law Review: 827-860.

Kraska, James. 2011. Contemporary Maritime Piracy. International law, Strategy, and Diplomacy, Oxford: Praeger.

Slaugther, Anne-Marie. 1997. The Real World Order. Foreign Affairs 76 (5): 183-197.

Commentary originally published on Piracy Studies