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Combined Maritime Forces and the UN Peacekeeping Maritime Taskforce: understanding the promotion of Maritime Security in the Middle East

BY Melissa Rossi

Researcher at the Brazilian Naval War College and an EGIC Steering Committee Member
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04/24/2023

Combined Maritime Forces and the UN Peacekeeping Maritime Taskforce: understanding the promotion of Maritime Security in the Middle East

The role of maritime taskforces created to support maritime security has grown in strength and strategic importance after the end of the Cold War, as maritime trade has increased and the oceans have become an ever-growing stage for a plethora of illicit activities, from piracy to the smuggling of illicit weapons, fuel, drugs and the trafficking and smuggling of human beings.

Since 2006, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) has established the United Nation´s (UN) first ever Maritime Taskforce (MTF), as part of an effort to enforce an arms embargo in Lebanon and to train the Lebanese Navy (LAF-Navy) in order to regain full control of their territorial waters in the process. UNIFIL´s MTF, now under German command, derives its authority from United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1701 (2006), having been created officially on 15 October 2006. What is fascinating about UNIFIL´s Maritime Taskforce is that besides being the first, it is the only one of its kind so far. In this case, the MTF acts together with the LAF-NAVY, hailing suspected vessels and directing them to be inspected by the LAF-NAVY.

Other international naval missions are either based on the Common Security and Defense Policy of regional organizations, such as the 2 European Union Naval missions (EUNAVFOR MED Irini and EUNAVFOR Atalanta)- I will talk about EU Naval mission in future pieces- or based on international naval coalitions, such as the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), a multinational naval coalition that has different taskforces (Combined Taskforces 150, 151, 152 and 153) patrolling the waters of the Arabian Gulf, Gulf of Oman, Arabian Sea, Northern Indian Ocean, Gulf of Aden and Red Sea. Their activities range from countering the smuggling of weapons, drugs, charcoal to antipiracy efforts. CMF is led by the United States and is headquartered together with the Fifth Fleet and the United States Naval Forces Central Command, in Manama, Bahrain, counting on the support of 34 nations.

Let´s delve into this a bit further

UNIFIL´s MTF countries are bound by a mandate, which means members are tied to specific timely commitments and cannot just withdraw at will, while CMF´s partners are based on a voluntary cooperation, being able to withdraw their support when they choose to. Moreover, from an international legal standpoint, UNIFIL´s Maritime Taskforce is an integral part of a UN peacekeeping mission and their presence in the area is based on Lebanon´s consent. According to Article 14 of UNSC Resolution 1701 (2006):
“14. Calls upon the Government of Lebanon to secure its borders and other entry points to prevent the entry in Lebanon without its consent of arms or related materiel and requests UNIFIL as authorized in paragraph 11 to assist the Government of Lebanon at its request;”

In other words, Lebanon, a sovereign nation, has temporarily agreed to cede bits of its sovereignty in order to have UN peacekeepers train its Armed Forces, since the country still is not in total control of segments of its territory, including its territorial waters. As such, the UN, an international organization whose presence in Lebanon is based on the unanimous consent of its permanent Security Council members, has agreed to assist Lebanese authorities to do so by training not only its Army, but also its Navy to intercept illicit weapons entering the country by sea. In this case, the AoR (Area of Responsibility) of the taskforce is primarily inside Lebanese territorial waters, though it has expanded even beyond those 12 nautical miles.

On the other hand, an international naval coalition such as CMF is not part of a UN peacekeeping operation, though it has heeded to the calls for action of specific UN resolutions in ithe past and its prompt move to action has been commended by the UN in different resolutions, as was in the case of the fight against piracy off the coast of Somalia.

Let´s zoom in on one of CMF´s taskforces

Combined Taskforce 151, now under Korean command (previously under Brazilian command). Created in 2009, CTF 151 is tasked with patrolling the waters of the Southern Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, Northern Indian Ocean and can go as far as the Arabian sea (though not entering the Arabian Gulf) in order to counter piracy in these international waters. To be sure, it does not patrol the territorial waters of any of the given coastal countries in the region, but it can act freely in international waters to counter piracy as allowed by Article 105 and Article 107 of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS):

“Seizure of a pirate ship or aircraft On the high seas, or in any other place outside the jurisdiction of any State, every State may seize a pirate ship or aircraft, or a ship or aircraft taken by piracy and under the control of pirates, and arrest the persons and seize the property on board…” and “Ships and aircraft which are entitled to seize on account of piracy A seizure on account of piracy may be carried out only by warships or military aircraft, or other ships or aircraft clearly marked and identifiable as being on government service and authorized to that effect.”

As observed bellow, UN resolutions against piracy in the Horn of Africa/Middle East solely Commend the support of specific naval missions and coalitions, which have attended the UN´s call to the international community in order to fight piracy since 2008. In the last UNSC Resolution 2608 (2021), on the fight against piracy in Somalia, it clearly is appreciative of this support:

“Commending the efforts of the European Union Naval Forces (EUNAVFOR) Operation ATALANTA and EUCAP Somalia, Combined Maritime Forces’ Combined Task Force 151 (CMF), the counter piracy activities of the African Union onshore in Somalia and other States acting in a national capacity in cooperation with Somali authorities to suppress piracy and to protect ships transiting through the waters off the coast of Somalia…”

The funding and responsibility of CTF 151 to fight piracy in such waters relies on the efforts of individual states which have chosen to voluntarily join the broader CMF partnership. Their interest is based on the assurance of maintaining the free flow of international trade, including for their own country´s merchant vessels, and guaranteeing maritime security, in some of the most important sea lanes in the world.

Each country contributes with what they can to CMF and they are not bound by any specific political mandate. According to CMF´s site:

“Contributions can vary from the provision of a liaison officer at CMF HQ in Bahrain to the deployment of warships or maritime reconnaissance aircraft. We can also call on warships not explicitly assigned to CMF to give Associated Support. This allows a warship to offer assistance to CMF whilst concurrently undertaking national tasking.”

Ultimately, the objective of all of these taskforces is to uphold global maritime peace and security, guaranteeing the freedom of navigation and reinforcing an international rules-based order in complex waters such as those of the Eastern Mediterranean and the waters surrounding the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa. Interestingly, albeit these taskforces play different roles, one can observe that there is a larger UN framework at play, outlined in the responsibilities of UNCLOS and those established by specific UN Resolutions, as Resolution 1701 (2006), which created UNIFIL´s MTF and Resolution 2608 (2021)- together with all the UN antipiracy resolutions that preceded it- calling the international community to take on the initiative of fighting piracy off the coast of Somalia and in the broader region.