Fighting human & wildlife trafficking needs more than strong laws.

2014-03-24 19:58

In the fight against human trafficking the USA applies a three-tier ranking score to nations worldwide, with 3 being the lowest rank. Very broadly, the rank is assessed on the strength of a nation’s anti-trafficking legislation (if indeed they have any) and what actions the government is taking to enforce that legislation. Notionally there are policy penalties against those who remain non-compliant to combating the problem. Cambodia is one country where the laws have been progressively tightened over the years.

Cambodian children remain at significant risk of being sold and trafficked

Advocates against wildlife trafficking are also calling for countries to build or improve upon existing laws – essentially to construct a substantial hammer to come down on poachers and traffickers. Kenya is one place where the wildlife laws saw massive increases in penalties for participating in the illegal killing or live capture and subsequent trade in wildlife. Congratulatory messages poured in from the conservation community to the Kenyan government with many stating that the government was making a strong statement against poaching.

Yet, in February & March 2014 Kenya experienced a huge surge in the killing of rhinos for their horns, and the slaughter of elephants and lions continues unabated in the country. One rhino was even killed inside a small national park only 200 meters from a ranger outpost and a heavily pregnant cow elephant was speared to death close to Amboseli National Park.

Similarly, where Cambodia has done a good job redefining its laws against the sale and slavery of people, the 2013 Trafficking in Persons report by the US Government placed Cambodia on the Tier 2 Watch List. That’s a sub-level of tier two, and a very poor ranking for a nation with good legislation specifically outlawing the sale of people. The reason is that Cambodia remains a country where horrific sale and slavery abuses against people, including children, are relatively commonplace.

Strong laws are not actually the ‘next step’ in combating trafficking, and there are well documented reasons why. Unless we take a more carefully thought out and researched approach little is likely to change on the ground for victims – be they wildlife or people. There is no doubt that good legislation (‘good’ does not necessarily mean heavy-handed) is needed, but criminologists will tell us that even good legislation is pretty useless unless people believe they will get caught. As criminologist Melanie Wellsmith put it in 2010 when considering the illicit trade in endangered species “enhancing the severity of punishment will have little impact on people who do not believe they will get apprehended for their action”.  Often, the call and push for stronger legislation is a knee-jerk reaction designed to make those who care feel better and those in political power look good. It does not necessarily change anything on the ground.

If the laws are to be relied upon they will only work if people are caught and prosecuted. So to tackle trafficking the mandatory steps prior to rewriting laws are to greatly increase the risk of being caught and prosecuted. People illegally killing, moving and brokering wildlife, and those selling or buying other people, keeping them as slaves or sexually using a child need to be brought to account even if it’s under existing national and international laws. In 2008 the United Nations produced the Vienna Report on human trafficking, and in it they specifically recommended the urgent need to tackle corruption, even citing that the tools to do so already exist but are not utilized. They referred to corruption as ‘the grease that facilitates the crime’. They also made the call for the development of independent institutions to work on various aspects of transnational enforcement. These are not simple recommendations to follow, but given what we know about failures to implement legislation it must be done.

Where legislation is to be used as the ‘hammer’ then the system demands competent police and prosecutors who can manage cases effectively. It requires solid intelligence and investigations. One could argue quite successfully that even the previous wildlife laws in Kenya, including the option of a 10-year jail term, could have been very effective if they were actually implemented correctly. However, systemic corruption within KWS and the police, incompetency on the part of prosecutors and the judiciary and the archaic conditions surrounding the implementation of the wildlife law precluded use to its full extent.

To put it bluntly, in Kenya, Cambodia and many other nations one can still actively engage in wildlife and human trafficking with little risk of being uncovered by the State. So what, if anything, can be done? How do we draw on the huge body of literature that exists on how to fight corruption, organized crime and weak governance and translate that to action? There are ways, there are those challenging current thinking and practices, and there is plenty of research to support them. In the second part of this article in April these new ideas will be explored.


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