The tiny nation saw the benefit of re-establishing the rule of law in the maritime domain. Picture: Kojo Bentum-Williams/VoyagesAfriq
The tiny nation, on islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean, saw the benefit of re-establishing the rule of law in the maritime domain. It also saw the benefit of making the sea sustainable, as well as safe.

Africa’s smallest nation is setting a standard for safe sustainable seas through the prosecution of pirates, international maritime cooperation, and proactive measures to protect its exclusive economic zone.

The Seychelles has been leading the way in the prosecution and imprisonment of East African pirates, bolstering its small Coast Guard, forging agreements and alliances with foreign powers, and ensuring the preservation and protection of its vast maritime domain. The work is paying off. Africa’s smallest nation is setting a standard for the continent.

The Seychelles is a 115-island archipelago with a combined land area of 455 square kilometers, but it must protect an exclusive economic zone at sea of 1,336,559 square kilometers — an area larger than South Africa. 

The Seychelles and its 90,000 residents have a stake in maritime concerns that greatly eclipses those of nations many times its size and population.

As piracy and other maritime threats increased in the Indian Ocean, the Seychelles benefited from forward-thinking leaders willing to engage with international partners. The nation’s diminutive size and geography also helped, said Dr. Ian Ralby, adjunct professor of maritime law and security at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.
 
“In some ways their size gives them the advantage of agility, It’s a lot easier to change things and change approaches when you’re 90,000 people than when you are 200 million people.” said Ralby.

However, the Seychelles’ size also magnifies the effects of piracy and other threats. Threats to the fishing industry or tourism are felt acutely nationwide. Ignoring the problem is not an option.

The Seychelles also benefits from another unique feature. Dr. Christian Bueger, in a paper co-authored with Anders Wivel in May 2018, poses this question: “How can it be that a country with such limited human and financial resources becomes recognized as a major diplomatic facilitator and as one of the agenda setters in ocean governance?”
 
The secret is embedded in the nation’s ethnic and cultural history.

A UNIQUE FORM OF DIPLOMACY

The Seychelles does not have an indigenous culture or population. In fact, it had no population at all until the 1770s, when French planters arrived, bringing East African slaves with them. The nation’s modern population includes the descendants of French, African and British settlers, as well as African, Indian, Chinese and Middle Eastern traders who lived on three main islands — Mahé, Praslin and La Digue.

Slaves were traded as individuals, not groups or families, so their cultures were not preserved. With the eventual influx of other nationalities from the East and West, the Seychelles became a Creole country. This mixture of cultures, without a strong devotion to any one of them, makes the Seychelles adept at  “Creole diplomacy.”

In Creole diplomacy, you have many friends, no enemies, and you speak with everyone, and you can be very pragmatic in terms of making things work rather than having a lot of ideological or historical problems involved,. Pragmatism, openness toward all sorts of cultures and other nations is how Creole culture works.

The Seychellois government cooperates with a diverse range of nations and organizations on maritime issues. It has worked with international organizations to combat maritime crime, participated in international naval exercises and struck bilateral deals with foreign nations to bolster its training and interdiction capacity through the acquisition of sea and air assets.

Some examples:

In 2014, the European Union (EU) donated flight planning and imagery-analysis software to the Seychelles and taught officers to use it. The system helps the Air Force monitor the maritime domain and effectively analyze radar, video and infrared images, defenceWeb reported. This capacity helps provide admissible evidence in piracy prosecutions.

In 2015, the Seychelles became the first regional nation to chair the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia, serving for two years. Participants coordinate political, military and nongovernmental efforts to combat East African piracy and ensure that pirates are brought to justice. Nearly 80 nations and several international organizations participate.
 
Germany trained the Seychelles Marine Police Unit in 2016 on boarding, securing landing zones and fighting onboard fires.

Leading in prosecutions:

One arena in which the Seychelles has excelled is in its willingness to prosecute pirates caught attacking ships off the coast of Somalia and beyond. As naval forces began to strike back against pirates in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean, they engaged in “catch and release” because participating nations were not willing to prosecute pirates in their home countries.

To address this, the international community worked towards a solution whereby international navies would arrest suspects, but then hand them over to regional countries for prosecution.
 
The Seychelles agreed to prosecute pirates and soon became the primary regional state to handle the cases. They have tried dozens of cases representing more than 100 suspects and have handled several appeals cases as well. 

They also navigated a steep learning curve on rules of evidence such as proving suspects are older than 18 or addressing questions of their citizenship. They now have some of the world’s leading expertise in terms of the mechanics of actually taking a piracy case from wherever — anywhere on the high seas — to trial and all the way through to prosecution, conviction, appeal and the eventual imprisonment.

The bigger maritime picture:

The Seychelles knows the value and fragility of its sea-based economy. Its revenues derive chiefly from the fishing and tourism industries, and crime at sea imperils that commerce. 

The Seychelles has a fishing traceability policy that allows global consumers to see the origination of tuna caught by Seychellois fishing boats. This market transparency adds value to legal catches and discourages illegal fishing.

The country also has embarked on a novel way of preserving its maritime domain while retiring sovereign debt. The financing arrangement, known as “debt for dolphins,” has the Seychelles setting aside vast swaths of its maritime domain for preservation in exchange for funding that retires national debt.
 
In 2018, The Nature Conservancy offered to buy about $22 million of Seychelles’ debt. In exchange, the country would designate a third of its marine area as protected. The first 210,000-square-kilometer conservation area would limit fishing, oil exploration and development in fragile habitats and allow them under certain conditions in the rest of the area. An additional 200,000-square-kilometer area was to have different restrictions.

The Seychelles has committed to protecting up to 30% of its marine domain through a comprehensive marine spatial plan. The plan will protect species and habitats, build coastal resilience against climate change, and preserve economic opportunities in tourism and fishing.