Earlier this year, the Senate passed a resolution endorsing and supporting efforts by the Obama Administration to improve maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea.  The resolution could not be more timely, as pirate attacks off the coast of West Africa have increased in the first first months of 2014, prompting the International Chamber of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau to warn ships transiting the region to be extra vigilant.  The resolution underscores the importance of regional cooperation and collective action to address this growing problem of interest to many U.S. companies, particularly those in the oil and gas industry.  While incidents of piracy off the coast of Somalia have decreased recently due to greater international cooperation on counter-piracy operations, the number of attacks in the Gulf of Guinea has increased, disrupting shipping, raising insurance costs, and denying African states badly needed tax revenue.

The Senate resolution, which was introduced by Senator Flake (R-AZ), emphasizes the importance of security in the Gulf of Guinea both for the United States and for African states in the region.  The United States in 2012 imported more than 315 million barrels of oil through the region, where U.S. business also have extensive fixed investments.  In addition, trade through the Gulf of Guinea is an important source of tax revenue and economic activity that can help spur badly needed growth and development for African states.  Therefore, the resolution encourages the President to continue to provide support and assistance to affected African countries “within resource constraints.”

The resolution also correctly underscores the importance of regional cooperation and collective action.  For both legal and practical reasons, the Gulf of Guinea presents a more challenging problem compared to the Gulf of Aden, where international efforts including a European Union naval force have curtailed attacks.  First, under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, “piracy” can technically occur only on the “high seas,” or outside any state’s territorial sea, which extends 12 miles from the shore.  On the high seas, piracy is a crime erga omnes (“against all”) and therefore any state may claim jurisdiction to intercept and prosecute pirates.  But inside the territorial sea, maritime attacks are criminal matters within the domestic jurisdiction of the state.  Unlike the Gulf of Aden, where pirate attacks are concentrated off the coasts of Somalia and Yemen, the Gulf of Guinea includes territorial waters belonging to as many as 13 states.  For this reason, a conference held at Chatham House last year concluded that ensuring security in the Gulf of Guinea is beyond the capacity of not just any one state, but also of any one regional body acting alone.

There have been encouraging steps toward greater cooperation.  In 2011, Benin and Nigeria established a joint maritime patrol mechanism that succeeded in reducing the number of attacks off their coasts, though attacks off the coast of neighboring Togo increased.  And last year the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) agreed to work toward multilateral agreements for regional cooperation.  Nevertheless, the continued rise in the number and severity of attacks suggests that even greater regional cooperation and support from the United States and the international community will be necessary.