Sovereign Control and Ocean Governance in the Regulation of Maritime Private Policing

This post is the second in an ongoing series showcasing interdisciplinary research in the Defence Studies Department. You can read the first here.

Alex Gould

In recent decades, new public-private policing governance structures everywhere have constituted new forms of authority and political order in the contemporary world. Abrahamsen and Williams have argued that the security field is increasingly governed by ‘global security assemblages’ in which commercial entities, private security companies and states, operating over a range of spatial scales, interact to produce infinitely diverse sets of policing practices. Across both Criminology and International Relations, there is now significant interest in understanding how local, regional and global dynamics intersect in shaping security and policing assemblages globally, especially in unconventional political environments.

The public-private security architecture that has emerged in response to piracy in the Western Indian Ocean is a good example of how unique sets of practices and political logics manifest in contemporary multilateral policing. Maritime security issues have become increasingly significant in the global security landscape in the last decade, and with $1.1bn having been spent on private security in the Indian Ocean at the height of the Somali piracy crisis in 2011, a series of studies have been conducted that explore how private security actors have become enmeshed in the political architecture that governs maritime counter-piracy. As with scholarship on security contracting more broadly, much of this work has explored how private maritime security companies are regulated; scholars have generally viewed the (evolving) regulation of private security as providing a key window into shifting relationships between public and private logics and authority structures in multilateral security governance. However, this existing literature on private maritime security has largely neglected the (regulatory) roles of a series of important sites of authority in ocean governance. More specifically, it has generally examined the regulatory regimes of individual Western flag states, ignoring international organizations, the commercial maritime community, and open registries. Consequently, this scholarship has been unable to establish how different regulatory regimes and types of regulation interact with each other, and how and in what ways the maritime system’s regulation of private power in offshore policing (in which individual flag states are of only limited significance) has been mutually constitutive of the socio-politics of ocean governance.

An article recently published in Policing and Society fills this empirical and theoretical void. Part of a broader project that aimed to uncover the politics of multilateral security governance at sea, it argues that while the regulation of private security on land has served to anchor multilateral policing in particular structures of sovereign authority and/or public good, the assemblage of regulatory practices in the Western Indian Ocean is mutually constitutive of distinct forms of public-private relations and social ordering at sea. Crucial is the study’s use of methodological approaches and conceptual frameworks from Criminology and Sociology, which offer considerable insight into how the regulation of sub-state security actors maps onto the politics of the everyday in certain forms of space. The article argues that the complex of regulatory actors and practices in the Western Indian Ocean, due to the lack of a ‘single unit of government administration’ for the regulation of security companies and the permissiveness of both industry-produced and flag state regulation, entrenches uniquely expansive forms of private autonomy and legitimacy in the governance of private security.

While some work has framed the proliferation and governance of maritime private security as an act of sovereign ‘outsourcing’, the article argues that this perspective obscures the complexity of not only the structures of public-private relations in contemporary policing (which are central to our understanding of modern statehood and contemporary life), but also the practices that constitute them. Ultimately, the article concludes that outside the ‘power container’ of territoriality, the regulation of private security is not anchored in the joint imaginaries of state sovereignty and the public/private binary that shape the governance of private security in terrestrial environments. In its final section, the article places this argument in the context of broader conceptual scholarship on ocean governance, which has asserted that the oceans are not a lawless, anarchic void, but rather a ‘specially constructed space within society’; a smooth, connective space for global commerce, ‘[not] within which power could be deployed…but as an empty space across which power could be projected’. In addition to exploring an under-researched and poorly-understood multilateral security environment, this article demonstrates that even commonly prevailing realities of contemporary security, such as the orienting or ‘civilizing’ of security towards the public interest, are not ubiquitous, and that we must re-examine territory, the state, and all the other normative and analytical categories in whose terms the provision of security and policing has historically been conceived.


Featured Image – The USS Farragut, part of Combined Task Force 151, engages a suspected pirate vessel in 2010

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