By Wanjohi Kabukuru
[Lamu, Kenya] Mid this year the UN will be convening “The Ocean Conference” at the UN headquarters in New York. This conference brings in the world to discuss how to advance SDG14 which specifically deals with oceans.
Three months before “The Oceans Conference” the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) which is an international organization bringing together 21 Member States will be celebrating its 20th anniversary since it came into being. IORA which counts Australia, Bangladesh, Comoros, India, Indonesia, Iran, Kenya, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mozambique, Oman, Seychelles, Singapore, Somalia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Thailand, UAE and Yemen as members will commemorate its 20th birthday with a “Leaders’ Summit” in Jakarta, Indonesia from 5th to 7th March.
The IORA Leaders’ Summit Masthead [IORA]
“Strengthening Maritime Cooperation for a peaceful, stable and prosperous Indian Ocean” is IORA’s theme for the “Leaders Summit.”
The question that should be of interest to Indian Ocean citizens is just how prepared is the Indian Ocean rim to tackle its own summit in March and also engage the world later in June?
The time tested template that normally happens is having most of the regional nations’ scurrying a few weeks to the summit in Jakarta to put their teams together. This has been the trend for years. The same scenario will play out when the New York ocean conference comes in June.
But it need not be.
Three fundamental viewpoints define the region. First is its reluctance to exert its soft power on global affairs. Secondly countries in the region are more inclined towards internal self-interests and pronounced self interests from a regional and international prism. Regional bloc interests and even international interests with a regional bias are less pronounced. And third is the “play-it-safe” wait and see card, much loved by many countries and considered as an ace in global diplomacy.
Before the summit in March and the conference in June there is need for an honest conversation regarding the Indian Ocean region and its interactions with the world.
The pillars that need to define IORA’s global engagement is purely contained in its data matrix. The region hosts a population of 2.2bn people. The dizzying data does not stop there as the Indian Ocean maritime trade lanes and oil transshipment trade routes are some of the most crucial international trade links in global commerce today.
The US Energy Information Administration identifies the Indian Ocean as one of the global strategic chokepoints. This is because of the Strait of Hormuz carrying about 17 million barrels per day (bbl/d); the Suez Canal and Suez-Mediterranean Pipeline carrying about 3.8 million bbl/d and the Bab el Mendeb Straits on the northern edge of the Indian Ocean which is the third largest maritime route for crude transportation, carrying 3.4 million bbl/d.
It is these figures that should redefine IORA’s engagement with the world.
Other regions notably the Caribbean, Atlantic and the Pacific regions are always well prepared and are never shy to articulate their positions. They react as a team and stick to common interests. In the Indian Ocean region the reverse happens as divided loyalties seem to define oceanic policies. An inherent inability coupled with disinterest to articulate common interest issues is always overtaken by the “someone-else-will-take-care-of-it” attitude.
To begin with the region is the most diverse encompassing a plethora of races, religious creeds, languages, identities and political ideologies. It has boundless reserves of innovative ideals and has produced strong thinkers and innovators for the world for centuries.
It has powerful countries with extensive diplomatic clout and eco-wealth to boot. However they are always reluctant. Of significant interest though is the signal that the monsoons of change are blowing.
“The Summit is expected to be a game-changer for regional cooperation in the Indian Ocean, and in keeping with the challenges that the region faces, aims to forge a revitalized and sustainable architecture in multi-dimensional engagement.” A communiqué from IORA says. “The Summit proposes to adopt strategic outcome documents entitled the ‘IORA Concord’ and the ‘IORA Action Plan’ as well as the ‘IORA Declaration on Countering Violent Extremism leading to Terrorism’. These strategic documents reflect IORA's vision for the future.”
‘IORA Concord’ Committee meeting. #IORA@20 remains to be felt on the global stage [Image: CC-IORA]
In the “IORA Concord” the region seeks to maximize on the potential of economic cooperation, trade and investments alongside tackling IUU fishing, migration, piracy and narcotics trafficking.
This seems to be a new territory for IORA. A novel internal paradigm shift. This is because the IORA charter has always been “a less-than-treaty level document” meaning that it is not legally binding.
The Indian Ocean region of interest [Image: CC-PHY]
For the last two decades IORA has kept to its founding charter which aims at building and expanding “understanding and mutually beneficial cooperation through a consensus-based, evolutionary and non-intrusive approach.” In pursuing this objective IORA has no binding contracts, laws nor institutional structures. “Cooperation is based on the principles of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, political independence, non-interference in internal affairs, peaceful coexistence and mutual benefit.”
With the Leaders summit in Jakarta, the trend of the previous 20 years seems likely to begin to change.
That is as it should be.
Change reflecting the current realities of a rapidly shifting world need to be the mantra informing IORA’s future prospects and interactions.
It is only after they reinvigorate IORA’s bubbling potential can they translate that “soft-power” to the world and lobby positive change when The Ocean Conference opens in New York. The leader’s summit in Jakarta brought together by a common transboundary ecosystem, the Indian Ocean holds the key for the region and the world. IORA must choose to either remain as a unenthusiastic and reluctant bystander with all the necessary bargaining chips at its disposal or become an agent of well meaning change for a hurting world and oceans under threat.
To tip the scales in its favour at the Oceans Conference, and in order to remain relevant for the next 20 years IORA must choose the latter option.