Do you get it?

2015-03-13 12:16

World Wildlife Day on 3 March, and 2015’s message of ‘It’s time to get serious about wildlife crime’, received commendable media coverage. There was a session on the subject at the UN General Assembly and the profile is being maintained through a myriad of conferences, meetings and seminars.

My regular readers will have seen me, more than once, express frustration over the lack of ‘mainstream’ law enforcement officials at most of these events.  But I am becoming increasingly convinced that it is not, and will never be, enough to simply get those people to the table. If we want to move forward effectively in tackling organized crime, and not just wildlife crime, the time has come to replace or completely remove some of those currently seated at the table. Bear with me whilst I relate a story to back up my opinion.

In the past (though not too long ago), in a country far away, which shall remain nameless, I spent some time with the boss of that nation’s immigration agency. I was seeking to understand how his department and its officials operated. He described to me that the headquarters building in which we were then standing contained a detention block, where persons were kept prior to court appearance or deportation. There were, on that particular day, about 30 individuals locked up somewhere beneath our feet.

The chief immigration official described to me how his staff would react to someone arriving at the nearby international airport, who presented a fake passport. The individual would be detained, conveyed to the cellblock, and reported for prosecution.

“At what point”, I asked, “would you involve the Police?” A look of utter bewilderment spread across his face. “Why would I involve the Police, it’s an immigration matter?” he replied.

I could see the man was missing the point I was attempting to make, so I asked him to imagine a scenario, which I went on to depict. John Sellar presents himself at the airport immigration desks and hands over a passport, seeking entry to the country. The immigration officer spots the document is counterfeit. Sellar is detained and taken off to await prosecution.

I asked whether immigration officials would contact, if not the Police, then, for instance, the country’s national INTERPOL bureau and ask for databases to be checked. The answer was, “No”. Would they not, I wondered, wish to learn whether: Sellar was wanted elsewhere in the world; was a known terrorist or convicted criminal; the passport he presented had been linked with immigration offences elsewhere or with other crimes? Would no research be undertaken into John Sellar’s background?  Once again, he told me that he had no such expectations of his staff, as what I was referring to had nothing whatsoever to do with immigration.

This gentleman was not being particularly officious, uncooperative or inflexible. He simply, and genuinely, ‘didn’t get it’. He, and presumably his officials, did not see themselves as law enforcement officials or, I suspect, particularly as guardians of their nation’s security either. They saw themselves as persons who had one job to do, and no other.

The boss was not a career-long immigration official. He was a life-long civil servant, who had worked his way up the governmental administration ladder until he reached the point where he would be placed in charge of an agency. I suspect it was probably by chance that he was allocated to immigration and not to agriculture, sanitation, overseeing the capital’s streetlamps or some other equally-exciting public service.

Is the scenario I have described, and the way it would be (and is being) responded to, not rather frightening? It certainly is to me. What is even scarier is that the mind-set of that immigration boss is one which is shared by many of his colleagues, both in his home country and in others all around the world.  I could describe similar scenarios involving airport security, Customs’ inspections and the activities of various other agencies (including some wildlife law enforcement bodies) in a number of nations I have visited.

This is not a criticism of such individuals. Unkind as it may seem to use such words; they simply do not know any better. And any amount of capacity-building and training further down the ladder will be completely wasted until the folks at the top do ‘get it’.

In too many parts of the world, the heads of wildlife departments, national parks, reserves (both terrestrial and marine), protected areas, designated forests, etc. have just about as good an understanding of law enforcement as the boss of that immigration agency. If you start off life as a forest guard, and want to rise up to become the Chief Conservator of Forests, you don’t focus on anti-logging. You strive to be good at forest management.  The equivalent applies if you are a game scout.

Yet it is the heads of such ministries, departments and agencies that governments are expecting to develop and direct strategies in answer to today’s highly sophisticated and organized: rape and plunder of natural resources; human trafficking; cross-border smuggling of a variety of illicit goods; and a whole range of matters that do not fall directly into the laps of the police of the world. And it is such persons who we regularly see at the current round of conferences, sitting alongside their sometimes equally-ignorant political masters. There, they become even more out of their depth, as they are being asked to design responses to transnational organized crime groups and networks.

There are, of course, exceptions and I have had the pleasure of working with several. But the uninformed career administrators and managers are far too common and they are impeding progress. Seriously impeding progress.

Until we get rid of them, endangered species will continue to die. Until we prune them from our systems, criminals will continue to move unhindered across borders. And smugglers will continue to move contraband around the world without being intercepted.

It is time to take a whole-of-government look at how nations respond to crime. At present, it is regularly left to too few people and, even worse, the wrong people. Does every senior civil servant require a background in law enforcement? Of course not. But they need to be sensitized to the relevant issues and, where applicable, they should have a deputy who can direct and manage the agency’s activities in that field. They need to stop working in isolation and looking at the world with tunnel vision.

When the questions are posed in future, the response has to be and absolutely must be, “It’s okay. I get it.”

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