Reactive, Mobile and Nimble: In Conversation with Alan Cole

In this conversation Alan Cole, head of the UNODC Counter Piracy Programme (2009-2013) and UNODC Maritime and Transnational Crime Programme (since 2013) discusses how the CGPCS achieved to get a broad range of actors together and focus attention on the problem of piracy. He also takes a critical stance in arguing that more should have been done to ensure commitment from the government of Somalia and that not always all of the stakeholders have been adequately represented. He identifies the dangers that the CGPCS increasingly suffers from inefficiencies and over time has become more ritualistic and hence risks losing its experimentalist spirit. He foregrounds the importance of focussing the work on the challenges and the areas were the collective brainpower of the CGPCS members can make a difference. The conversation also includes reflections on how the future counter-piracy architecture could look like. The conversation was held on the 3rd of November 2014 at the UNODC offices, United Nations Office in Nairobi.

How did you get involved with the Contact Group for the first time?

AC: The Contact Group predates my time with the UNODC, it was running before I joined the UNODC in May 2009. So I was originally involved in my previous role as a naval lawyer in the UK.

When did you attend your first meeting?

AC: I think I’m right in saying it was Vienna in the first few months of 2009. That was Working Group 2 which met in Vienna for the first time to discuss legal issues and at the time I had just done some legal advice on detention of piracy suspects  by HMS Cumberland, one of the first transfers to  Kenya  and that was how I was involved.

What was your impression of the first meeting?

AC: One of my first thoughts was why isn’t a UN agency taking the leadership on this issue? Why is it necessary to have a Contact Group? Surely given the multitude of UN agencies involved in Somalia, UNDP, the UNODC and IMO there isn’t a need for an ad-hoc organisation?   To some extent it is an implied criticism of the UN response that it was necessary to establish a Contact Group at all. But anyway, be that as it may, it was impressive that states came together so quickly to address an emergent phenomenon.   I suspect that their enthusiasm to do so was accelerated by the fact that piracy impacts directly on  Western states, not just Somalia and its neighbours.  I don’t believe you would have seen the same response had it been purely a regional phenomenon

What would you say is the difference between a Working Group and a Plenary meeting?

AC: The difference should be that the Working Groups are dealing with substantive issues at the  level of officials and the Plenary is receiving reports on those substantive issues. But to some extent this concept gets corrupted, so for example at the 17th Plenary that just took place in Dubai we had a report from one agency  on their capacity building arrangements in Somalia. This is not something for the plenary, it is something which should be in the Capacity Building Working Group. What I think should be happening is that the Contact Group identifies issues that need to be given attention and send the Working Groups away to look at them, not for the Working Groups to generate things to talk about in order to fill the allocated time. But it is a risk with international organisations that if you give  delegates a certain amount of time to fill, they will never come back and say we will do this in half the time, they will think of new things to address and I think we are seeing quite a lot of that at the moment!

The Contact Group is usually seen as a tremendous success story, what does the Contact Group do really well?

AC: It draws attention to Somali piracy. I don’t think there is any doubt about that. It brings all the UN agencies into line and along, we had one or two UN agencies that didn’t cooperate to start with and spent a long time questioning why we needed  the Contact Group.  And we’ve had other UN agencies, like ourselves, who’ve started the reconsider whether it’s worth the time and effort to attend  (by the way, it is: just).  But broadly speaking the Contact Group has  brought the UN agencies, industry and  a really wide range of member states from European states to Egypt and  Somalia along. So that I think they’ve done very well.

What else, apart from raising attention for the piracy problem and bringing states together?

AC: In the case of one or two of the Working Groups I think it’s true of WG5 and WG2, they’ve come up with some really first class problem solving on issues around technical issues such as prisoner transfer arrangements and money flows. I’m not that familiar with WG5 as I only went once, but I understand that, like Working Group 2, it is an example of the Contact Group providing the leadership for some really first class Working Group activity.

For instance the legal toolkit?

AC: Yes, a really useful piece of kit. To go back to my previous point, there was a WG2 meeting in Dubai where people were effectively saying wouldn’t it be good idea if we worked on generating extradition laws, it’s already in the legal toolkit, its almost as if time has gone on so long that the corporate memory has been lost and we’re in danger of starting all over again.

Starting all over again? Perhaps this is a problem of a new generation coming in?

AC: Yes there has been a significant generational change…

What is it that Contact Group that doesn’t do well?

AC:  They could do more to hold the Somali Federal Government to account.  More could be done to place pressure on Somalia to meet its  own obligations, while recognising they will need some support to do so. To date the federal government has not passed a piracy law, despite being given UN assistance to draft it, has not come up with an explanation of what its own maritime enforcement structure is, despite EU assistance to decide, and has not come up with a single focal point for supporting the Contact Group, despite EU and UN funding to do so. The Federal Government delegation is sometimes characterised by being both junior and attending for the first time. I think the Contact Group should encourage  Somalia to present themselves better at the CGPCS.

How would you explain this? Is it perhaps diplomatic friendliness?

AC: It could be. I But I am not sure that the Somali Federal Government feels particularly positive about the Contact Group. Even after all these years, I sense that they feel they haven’t received their fair share of the investment or attention: I don’t think the relationship with Somalia has been as profitable as it could have been.

Anything else that the Contact Group does not do well?

AC: the only other thing is that we are not looking to economise as I think they should. I’m not saying that we should dissolve ourselves completely or that we should lose the institutional knowledge that they’ve got, but the Groups now have much the same attendance as they had when piracy was at its height and there needs to be some effort to economise, I think we’re starting to see some serious efforts to see how we can transfer over some of the core functions of the Contact Group, wherever possible, to standing organisations.

For UNODC and the Counter-Piracy Programme, how important was the Contact Group in making this a success story?

AC:  WG2 was absolutely critical. It provided part of our risk mitigation strategy, so that some of our more controversial bits of work we were doing like transferring prisoners to states without strong criminal justice systems and transferring prisoners from those states back to Somalia.  Somalia is one of the most dangerous, most corrupt and poorest country in the world yet we were erected by the Security Council to build prisons there that meet human rights standards. It is an extremely difficult thing to do and would have been very lonely if we had done it on our own! But having WG2 backing us and supporting our transfer agreements and other  arrangements  gave us the advantage of having a forum to seek the views of involved member states.

That’s mainly the work of WG2. Why do you attend the plenary then?

AC: We are a member of the Contact Group, so we are expected to be there and it allows us to get a feel for the general direction of travel amongst the international community in relation to Somali piracy.

How important would you say is the Contact Group is for getting donor funding and getting attention for projects?

AC: The Trust Fund is very helpful, we’ve  benefitted from perhaps  80% of the money paid into the trust fund. So that’s been very helpful.  However in respect of most of  the funding we’ve received for counter-piracy work, I never had a sense that it was dependent on the Contact Group.

One of the things the CGPCS is meant to do is coordination. But often it is very unclear what coordination really should imply, what would you say?

AC:  It simply hasn’t worked. Those that want to coordinate, coordinate. Those who don’t, don’t. There are some effective coordination mechanisms, but those tend to be informal ones. So the one that exists between UNODC, IMO and EUCAP Nestor on the legal capacity building in the Somali maritime sector is done on the exchange of emails and so on, it’s fine. Some of the most formal mechanisms, such as WG1 hasn’t really led to any coordination that I’m able to discern. We’ve had a process of regional states being urged to input their needs to a complex web based tool. But with one exception hasn’t been done. The only case where it happened was where the CBCG traveled to a regional state  and extract the needs from them. Other than that I’m not aware of any state which has put their needs into the CBCG matrix. I’m not aware of any agency that has lost money because it hasn’t been identified as a need by the CGPCS. There was a long period where we used to put at the top of our trust fund submissions that this need has been identified in the CBCG process  matrix, but we were the only agency who ever did it and it didn’t seem that anybody cared whether it was or it wasn’t! So in terms of the coordination, which is always very difficult in the international community, I don’t think it has succeeded.

Do you think there is the right mix of participants, or do you see that there are entities over or underrepresented?

AC: Well richer member states are strongly represented by virtue of the fact that they can afford to be represented, it is very disappointed this time to see Kenya not there, Yemen not there, Tanzania, I think I’m right in saying, not there. Mauritius and Seychelles always very conscientious and be represented. The region don’t seem to see a direct link between supporting the Contact Group and getting help with their Somali piracy problem, but then perhaps the region doesn’t see a Somali piracy problem anymore. Kenya used to be a very good attender, but if you ask Kenya what its top 5 security problems are at the moment then I suspect that Somali piracy would not be one of them.

What about the mixture between state and private actors?

AC: Interestingly the involvement of industry is quite novel for me, I’ve not been involved with agencies which have had such a heavy industry element and I think it’s been quite useful, but again you’re tending to see western industry bodies, so the large tanker communities, container ship communities etc. The Yemeni fishermen, some of the main victims of Somali piracy, aren’t represented, nor are the Filipino or Sri Lankan guys who have been held hostage, so there’s been selective representation from industry.

Is that a call for more NGO participation?

AC: You’d have to find an effective way to  represent the interests of Yemeni fishermen in an international Contact Group, that’s not an easy task! Or you’d look for somebody like the Sea Farers organisation to make the effort to go round to Yemen and the Philippines and Sri Lanka, the countries which provide the bulk of the crew that have been held hostage, and seek their views.

Some of the implementing agencies, NGOs that have never attended, such as the Norwegian Church.

AC: The CGPCS is not really that relevant to the capacity building to address piracy off the coast of Somalia. We could now deliver all of our programme without it and if you’re working for the Danish demining group or the Norwegian Church council or any of the Somali NGOs operating there, they don’t see the CGPCS as relevant at all, really.

For many observers much of what happens at the Contact Group comes across as a public spectacle. What is your view, what do you think for instance about the delegation statements?

AC: I think the statements from delegations take up too much time and are largely predictable.  One of the issues that needs more attention is the question of how we measure success. For example, ‘no successful piracy attacks’ is one suggested measure of success, but does that mean it’s acceptable for vessels to be repeatedly attacked unsuccessfully?, what we surely seek is no more attacks launched from the coast of Somalia. So overall I don’t think enough effort has gone into working out what the desired end state really is.

What do you think is the importance of the communique?

AC: I’ve never seen communiques read after the meeting. It’s a standard practice to have these things. I think the time spent on the Communiqué was greater than the time spent discussing substantive issues at the meeting. I think the communiqué could be more usefully written by a rapporteur in the course of the meeting and emailed around to everyone afterwards, saying if we don’t hear from you in 14 days we’ll presume your consent.

But your notion of diplomatic habit is quite interesting, have you seen this happening in other forums?

AC: Yes. Long communiqué drafting processes are not uncommon in the UN context.

Do you sense some conflict within the CGPCS?

AC: Not really. There’s a different feeling about the pace with which we should wind it up, with some pushing for a quicker timescale than others. But I think the general sense, given that we were presented with an options paper that included expanded scope, expanded type of crime, expanded region, shutting it down or keeping it much the same, and actually we all ended up somewhere between keeping it much the same and shutting it down. Within that there are differences, but I don’t think there are arguments about the substantive issues, apart from the high risk area which is a subject all in itself deserving of a meeting  from which most of us can be spared.

What about geopolitical rivalries, do you sense this mattering at all?

AC: Not really, there was a continuous call from Somalia that this is about illegal fishing and dumping of toxic waste and yet UNPOS explored the dumping of toxic waste, as have others, and found no evidence of it. The  illegal fishing argument has run its course now and the emphasis is on using the welcome but geographically controversial declaration of a EEZ as a first step in getting a sustainable fisheries sector.

How important are chairs in running the CGPCS?

AC: Is there much opportunity to punch your personal style on it? Probably not  Certainly They have all been competently chaired.

What would your word of advice for somebody attending the CGPCS for the first time?

AC: I think the lessons learned process is going to be extremely important, but its got to be accessible enough and short enough so that somebody fresh can find what they need to know. If you can find 20 pages on the CGPCs you’ll read it, if it’s 200 pages you won’t so there’s got to be key points for somebody coming in  Somali piracy could easily come back: you need lots of men, lots of boats and guns, lots of ships passing close to the coast, people willing to pay ransoms and an absence of the rule of law in some coastal regions. All of those five conditions are in place at the moment. There have been some improvements in rule of law in some regions and we’ve arrested a significant number of men, but the other three conditions are as they were in 2008 and it could come back quickly. The clever thing for the CGPCS is to say how can we make ourselves nimble, agile, what is the plan for recalling this. Suppose CGPCS shut down  next year, who is responsible for punching the button and reassembling us at very short notice?? In the Security Council, or with UNSOM? Who is going to maintain the mailing list of the people we need to get back together again if Somali piracy re-emerges?

If you could go back in time to 2008 and you were designing your dream Contact Group, in the situation 2008 there’s a sense that piracy is escalating, what would it look like?

I think there should have been a quicker UN response, perhaps with Working Groups being led by Interpol, UNODC, IMO etc That said you can’t criticise the chairmanship or the leadership, generally speaking, of the Working groups. I think Somalia should have been held more to account, should always have been on the panel, always represented at a high level and asked to deal with specific issues before the next meeting etc. Puntland the region where the piracy comes from, tends to be competently and consistently represented. They should have been made to play a bigger part and make a report at every Contact Group on what Somalia has done since the last meeting and what it needs help with.

In terms of organisational design would you do it the same way: a plenary and four/five Working Groups?

AC: I think some of the Working Groups lost their way quicker than others. I can’t comment on WG3, I’ve heard good things about it, and my proposal is that it now folds into SHADE and IMO, WG1 was highly effective to start with, powered the whole thing and then slightly lost its way when it tried to get involved in coordination and capacity building.  WG2 was the model in this respect, it did its work, reported its in-tray clear and then dissolved.

Talking about the future, let’s say in 10 years, what is the counter-piracy architecture going to look like?

AC: Hopefully in Somalia you won’t need a counter-piracy architecture. I’d hope in ten years there is no piracy and the CGPCS is dissolved and your lessons learned process is all that remains of it!

That is very optimistic. Don’t you think we need at least something like an international reporting mechanism?

AC: For a crime that hasn’t happened in ten years, if we provide a mechanism for a crime that doesn’t  exist, when we don’t have it for crimes that do exist, it seems a bit odd.

But how do you know a crime doesn’t exist if you don’t have a reporting mechanism?

AC: I think you’re going to know if Somali piracy exists or not.  I don’t want to sound too negative, but there’s so much transnational crime and so many security challenges in this region that the amount of effort we’re putting into one that’s quite narrowly focused.

If you look back at your participation in the CGPCS, was there anything you found surprising or unexpected?

AC: The only thing I’d say is that it has  became quite formulaic, more so than in 2009-2010

That is what we would call in academia ‘institutionalisation’. You slowly start something then you get rules and so on. The rules become ever more important because new people coming in take it for granted that the institution operates like this.

AC: In the old days it was highly reactive, mobile, nimble, Working Groups popped up to deal with issues. Now it has become formulaic and slow. There was a push at one point to create a UN agency on piracy. UNODC resisted that. If you want to institutionalise something, create a UN agency. That’s the ultimate way of institutionalising a problem because it will never go away. The good thing about the CGPCS was that it was designed to endure for as long as Somali piracy did.

Thank you for this conversation.

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