Military Legal Conference in Mauritius

Danielle Skinner, U.S. Africa Command Public Affairs Office, wrote:

With piracy and other maritime security issues becoming a growing concern around the world, a focus on legal maritime issues was the perfect theme of this year’s Military Legal Conference, conducted by U.S. Africa Command, May 1-5, 2011.

And what better setting for the conference than Mauritius, a small island in the Indian Ocean off the southeast coast of the African mainland.

Working in U.S. Africa Command’s Public Affairs Office, I hear a lot about maritime security issues, which range from piracy to illegal fishing to narcotics trafficking and environmental incidents such as oil spills. I’m familiar with the operational side and strategies used in enforcing maritime security. Legal enforcement officers are critical to these efforts. But what happens to criminals once they’re captured? The legal process following the capture is just as important as the initial enforcement operations.

A challenge for many African coastal countries is that they do not have strong legal frameworks to address these crimes on their own. One of the reasons piracy is so attractive is because of its lucrative pay and low risk of being caught. Those who are caught are often let go because many countries don’t have the legal systems or prison capacity to deal with them.

A major topic of the conference was deterring criminal activity in the maritime environment through prosecution, which requires building and improving national military justice systems. Regional partners are an important part of this. For instance, Kenya and the Seychelles often assist in prosecution of pirates off the coast of Somalia.

Throughout the week we heard from legal experts from the United States, Europe, and Africa who described their national processes and how they coordinate between the many agencies such as customs, Ministry of Fisheries, the Navy, etc.

The main message of the event was that there needs to be a legal strategy with regard to maritime issues, and this strategy should apply at the national, regional, and international levels.

While I haven’t had much free time to explore the island, I have learned some interesting facts about Mauritius. Did you know it was the only known home of the dodo bird? Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to spot any of these flightless birds since they became extinct shortly after European colonization of the island. English is the official language of Mauritius, but French and Creole are also widely spoken. The country is composed of several ethnicities, including Asian, African, Chinese, and French.

After today people will part ways, but I don’t think the collaboration will stop here. Colonel Lightner, director of U.S. AFRICOM’s Office of Legal Counsel told participants at the beginning of the week that if they don’t go home with a “shopping bag full of business cards,” they didn’t do their jobs. I noticed a lot of networking throughout the week, which, hopefully, will evolve into important partnerships in maritime security efforts.

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