Colombo (Sri Lanka), 30 October 2020 — The primary role of maritime law enforcement agencies is to monitor the oceans and counter criminal activity across this vast domain. Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) is the main tool at their disposal, allowing officials to assess threats to security, safety, the economy or the environment across the territories they guard.
MDA is an overview of the intelligence reports collected over a certain period, that the coastguard needs to make sure the seas are safe and free from crime. MDA is also the reference tool they consult prior to deciding to intercept a ship involved in criminal activity or conduct a search and rescue operation.
Given its vital role in combatting maritime crime, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) makes it a priority to support member states in improving MDA and making seas safe and secure for seafarers, through its Global Maritime Crime Programme (GMCP).
In 2020, UNODC has implemented several initiatives in South and Southeast Asia to strengthen the capabilities of maritime law enforcement officers as they gather, handle, analyse and employ MDA information in their day-to-day activities.
As part of these efforts, UNODC has developed MDA analytical training modules that combine theoretical lessons and practical exercises; specifically targeted at maritime operations centre personnel and MDA analysts.
An initial MDA Basic Analytical Training course was delivered to maritime law enforcement personnel from Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu.
The capacity-building opportunity showcased the tools that can be used for gathering MDA information. These include Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) —which allows vessels to communicate their location and avoid collisions— and Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS), used to track the activities of vessels across maritime zones to prevent illegal fishing and safeguard marine environments.
Participants also discussed the use of satellite imagery and radio frequency for the detection of “dark vessels” — ships that switch off their AIS to avoid detection, often to engage in criminal activities at sea. Participants also received training on using intelligence reports, either from fisherpeople or the community at large.
In Bangladesh, UNODC also led a coordination meeting to identify gaps and challenges in the country. This was achieved by engaging multiple government entities, from fisheries authorities to law enforcement agencies.
In Maldives as well, UNODC led a foundational training session to again provide an overview of the MDA tools available and the referent regional bodies for information sharing. The effort targeted several maritime law enforcement agencies, to encourage further communication and collaboration at the national level.
Although training and interagency dialogue are key to developing effective MDA capabilities, so is access to technology. In this vein, UNODC has donated equipment to support MDA capacity-building activities in countries of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
In Maldives, UNODC has delivered computers, workstations and monitors intended for processing, storing and analysing MDA data. As well, the organization has supplied substantive communications equipment —including radios, radars and base stations— to expand the communications infrastructure of its recipient Member States.
This push towards a technology-centred approach also extends to collaborating with external partners. UNODC continues to work closely with Vulcan (Skylight), Airbus and the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) to provide satellite imagery and data analysis to selected coastal states across the Indian Ocean.
Equipping law enforcement agencies with a robust MDA grants beneficiaries a clearer understanding of what is happening in their maritime domain. It further supports States in designing policies that respond to each country’s unique dynamics at sea, while building up their capacity to tackle maritime crimes such as illegal fishing, drug trafficking or smuggling of migrants.
Through its Global Maritime Crime Programme, UNODC continues to develop and impart high-quality training programmes to strengthen the MDA capability of Member States, alongside the delivery of state-of-the-art technological equipment; and by doing so, actively promoting maritime safety and security across the globe.