Please don’t let these be empty words

2013-07-01 10:30

In the communiqué issued at the conclusion of their recent meeting in Northern Ireland, leaders of the G8 countries made the following statement:

“We will also take action to tackle the illegal trafficking of protected or endangered wildlife species.”

Interestingly, the sentence appears in the section titled “Counter Terrorism” and under the sub-heading “Tackling criminal trafficking and border security”.

The cynics amongst us might be tempted, if they read the whole document, to think the sentence has something of the appearance of being tacked on; perhaps last-minute? The words and the sentiment don’t exactly flow with the rest of the section. Nonetheless, such a commitment by the heads of government of what are regarded as the world’s most significant nations mustn’t be discounted or devalued. But the words do maybe beg the question, ‘How?’

The unlawful exploitation, theft, illegal transborder transportation and eventual illicit trade of natural resources have been noted, in recent years, to have become a significantly profitable activity; attracting organized and sophisticated criminal alliances and networks. There is increasing evidence to demonstrate, too, that some groups engaged in rebel and terrorist actions may be participating in the illegal harvest and trade of fauna and flora to fund activities that threaten national, regional and, potentially, international security.

Awareness of this issue appears to now be widely recognized among the ‘international community’. The United Nation’s Secretary-General commented on poaching in a recent report to the Security Council. Hilary Clinton, shortly before leaving the post of US Secretary of State, made a forceful statement about the seriousness of wildlife crime. The heads of international bodies, such as the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, have stressed the need for greater attention to this subject. INTERPOL and the World Customs Organization are calling for more action. Prince Charles and his son, Prince William, hosted an event in London in May 2013, intended to garner recognition of the involvement of organized crime in the exploitation of natural resources, of varying types, across the globe. These statements and initiatives are very welcome and deserve to be applauded.

However, they are, in many respects, simply reflecting or repeating the concerns of front-line law enforcement officers that have existed for at least the last decade. Anti-poaching personnel have experienced, since the early 2000s, ever-increasing attempts by organized gangs to illegally harvest a range of animals; tigers, elephants, pangolins, great apes, rhinos. The list seems to grow with each passing year and deserves to include many timber and marine species too. Customs officials have noted significant escalations in the smuggling of wildlife contraband over the same time period. Police officers in some countries have observed illicit domestic trade in animals and plants, and their products, growing substantially.

The illegal trade in wildlife is estimated to be worth at least USD 10 billion annually. It may well be more. It is regularly quoted as being an important global criminality, alongside trafficking in narcotics, firearms and humans. It is variously reported as being third, fourth or fifth in importance among the crime threats facing society.

If such estimates are accurate, and I do not question the figures, why hasn’t the law enforcement community apparently woken up to this? I think there are a number of explanations.

The daily pressures upon Customs and Police officials are currently so great that it is all too easy to become parochial in one’s focus and actions. Customs need to intercept contraband entering their country and also gather revenue for their nation’s treasury. Police have to keep the streets free from disorder, whilst also trying to discover who broke into your neighbour’s house last week. When these agencies succeed in those routine tasks, there’s a tendency for them to think, ‘Job done’, and move on to the next problem. Such thinking can permeate right up the chain of command. Unless something interrupts it or pulls the focus away to a bigger picture.

Civil servants (I know because I used to be one at the international level) are skilled in drafting text and dropping it into declarations and communiqués. Politicians are used to reading those documents and signing off on them. Job done. What’s next?

I can’t recall a single occasion during my Police career when anyone said to me, “The Prime Minister has just committed the UK to… What should we do to implement that commitment?” The Camerons, Hollandes, Merkels and Obamas of the world do not set the agenda for their nation’s police agencies. And thank goodness they don’t. That’s what’s called separation-of-powers. But this constitutional benefit does lead to a communication and coordination gap. Plus, the reality is that Police and Customs’ budgets and priorities were set long before the G8 meeting in Northern Ireland, so immediate or short-term reactions to communiqués may not be readily practical.

Yes, Presidents and Prime Ministers probably discuss terrorism and drug trafficking with their chiefs of Customs and Police but I’d bet that few, if any, of them have sat down for a chat about poaching or illicit trade in fauna and flora. Wildlife crime has yet to be viewed as ‘mainstream crime’.

But, to be fair, the chiefs of Customs and Police don’t sit down for coffee and biscuits with the bosses of their country’s Warden, Ranger or Forest Guard departments either. Unlike the in-your-face effects of terrorism and narcotics, those chiefs are not seeing the daily impacts of ‘victimless’ wildlife crime. No one is turning up at Police stations to complain about an elephant being killed. It is not policemen who are stumbling over animal carcases or finding tracts of forest illegally logged; it is the wardens, rangers and forest guards.

The Customs agency bosses in Asia, whose staff intercept massive shipments of ivory en route from Africa, don’t see the carcases either. Neither do those managers, or their officials, have much sense of the bigger wildlife crime picture, nor how they might better respond to it.

When the Customs and Police managers of the world get together, as they occasionally do like their G8 political masters, wildlife crime simply isn’t on their agenda at the moment.

Judging by the various recent statements, declarations and communiqués, the most senior politicians of the world and the heads of international agencies have, eventually and not before time, been convinced that organized crime is raping profits from the world’s animals and plants in a manner that is pushing many of them close to extinction. But there’s a real danger that we are entering a phase of repeatedly ‘preaching to the converted’.

What we have not achieved is to close the communication gap with the agencies which have the expertise and legal authority to target this criminality and persuade them of, not just the seriousness of the issue, but the need for them to respond. And respond now.

How do you, “take action to tackle the illegal trafficking of protected or endangered wildlife species”? Well, one thing might be to do what no one appears to have done yet. You bring the Customs and Police chiefs of relevant countries together in one place, outline the problem, convince them why it should be added to their already long list of priorities, and then let them get on with it. And I mean the chiefs – not the mid-level or junior personnel who occasionally participated in past conferences and seminars; they’re already converts but they cannot determine their agencies’ policies. If necessary, and it probably will be, the G8 nations can perhaps offer funds to provide additional resources, be that human or logistical, to the developing countries that need them and also offer technical expertise, guidance and specialized support.

Customs and Police managers aren’t stupid, they’re just very busy. When I joined the Police in 1973, no one realized what a massive problem drug misuse would become. But we soon woke up to it, because we could see the evidence for ourselves. Wildlife crime, though, is taking place today under the radar of many law enforcement agencies.

One on-line dictionary defines a communiqué as “an official bulletin or communication, usually to the press or public.” If the press and public are the only people to read the recent G8 communiqué, then it risks being a document containing nothing but empty words.

It would be easy to be glib, cynical and dismissive and to recall the old proverb that ‘actions speak louder than words’. However, words are important. The words in the recent communiqué are very important. But they need to be heard by the right people. And they need to be acted upon.


AB praises selfless skipper

2010-11-21 18:15

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