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UNODC working with international partners to improve maritime security across the Western Indian Ocean

Seychelles, 25 August 2021 - A premier maritime security exercise has successfully finished with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) providing support to regional countries and the event’s host, the naval component of US Africa Command (AFRICOM).

Exercise Cutlass Express 2021 (CE21) is one of three maritime exercises led by US Naval Forces Africa this year. Having involved twelve participating countries together with several international and regional organisations, including UNODC, CE21 was conducted for the improvement of maritime security and law enforcement across East Africa and the wider Indian Ocean West region. For the first time, UNODC and AFRICOM have partnered for this exercise.

Captain Cannon Neslen, CE21 Exercise Director and US lead for theatre security cooperation representing US Naval Forces in Africa, said the collaboration with UNODC was impressive.

We would not have observed the success, on both fronts, from a command and control (perspective) from the operations centre, and from Visit, Board, Search and Seizure (VBSS) operations without the tremendous expertise and commitment from UNODC subject matter experts who were here”. 

CE21 aimed to improve regional cooperation in maritime domain awareness, information sharing between maritime operation centres, maritime interdiction, adherence to the rule of law, and counter-proliferation interdiction capabilities, with the intention of disrupting illicit maritime activity and strengthening safety and security across the Indian Ocean West region. 

The exercise began with an in-port training component followed by at-sea scenarios. The underway portion of the exercise tested ships’ abilities to conduct maritime interdiction operations by boarding teams against simulated suspect vessels, detecting illicit activity, and follow-on evidence collection procedures.

With the participating countries representing such a wide area, improvement in information sharing was a critical theme in CE21 and something that Captain Neslen said improved noticeably throughout the exercise.

“Within the Western Indian Ocean region, information sharing is paramount. We observed partner nations and international liaison officers being able to communicate information from their local country to a more global operations centre, so that they’re communicating their maritime environment and their security posture from their own country to the broader western Indian Ocean”.

According to UNODC legal expert, Tiago Zanella, the importance of information sharing as well as VBSS and evidence collection / preservation cannot be underestimated. He also added that understanding the law of the sea, which allows a specific country to determine when and where its ability to enforce maritime law begins and ends, also comprised a critical element of the training.

“There are different levels of capacity depending on the country and their experience but regardless, if you don’t know your jurisdictional powers, maybe your work is for nothing. Some (countries) have gotten noticeably better over the exercise”.

Another achievement of CE21, which was seen as insignificant in past years, was the simple fact that the exercise offered a rare opportunity for countries that participated to meet in person and forge cooperation during what is known as the world’s ‘new normal’ because of the pandemic.

“Coming out of a COVID-19 pandemic environment, where we have had difficulties developing relationships, interfacing first-hand with partner nations and meeting face-to-face has been difficult. We’ve observed and assessed multi-national partners in three different locations, executing numerous counter eliciting-trafficking scenarios on East African waters. To bring in all these different countries, have them get trained and then go assess their effectiveness and execute these scenarios on a target vessel out on the open waters, that is an impressive feat”, said Captain Neslen.

CE21 was hosted in Kenya, Djibouti and Seychelles between the 26th of July and the 6th of August 2021. Stakeholders from Kenya, Mozambique, Somalia, Sudan, Seychelles Comoros, Djibouti, Rwanda, Georgia, India, United Kingdom, and the United States participated. 

With the successful completion of CE21, UNODC has now partnered with AFRICOM on two other exercises for maritime law enforcement: Obangame Express in the Gulf of Guinea and Phoenix Express in North Africa and the Mediterranean.

For more information: 
Global Maritime Crime Programme (