Where is this going?

2015-03-26 16:08

So, another conference on illegal wildlife trade is over. This time it was in Kasane, Botswana, and was a follow-up to an event held in 2014 in London. Slightly over 40 countries got together in the UK last year and they adopted a 9-page Declaration[i]. Those nations committed themselves to twenty-five separate actions, intended to respond to the apparently ever-increasing scourge of wildlife crime.

The Kasane meeting’s purpose seems to have been (a) to maintain the political momentum and (b) to review progress in implementing the 2014 commitments. The UK’s civil service, which appears to be acting as something of a secretariat for what seems to have become a ‘process’ (and I’ll return to that shortly), prepared a document[ii] summarizing what has been done in the interim. Ironically, 25 countries submitted information on the 25 commitments, although it would seem that they did not provide data on the commitments one-by-one. Interestingly, the review paper describes the information provided as ‘Self Assessments’. If my arithmetic is correct, at least 15 countries did not self-assess.

If the ‘Find’ function on my computer is working effectively, neither the Democratic Republic of the Congo nor the Lao People’s Democratic Republic self-assessed. Perhaps because the news broke too late for inclusion, or maybe for diplomatic reasons, the review paper does not mention that these two nations have just been made the subject of CITES sanctions, for their failure to make progress in combating ivory trafficking. (I’ll return to the matter of sanctions shortly too.)

Just over 30 countries were present in Botswana. This time, instead of a Declaration, they adopted a 4-page Statement[iii]. The Statement contains 14 separate activities that were identified as being needed to push things along. The fourteenth action notes that Vietnam will host a similar event in 2016 and that Botswana will hold the “following conference”.

Both the 2014 Declaration and the 2015 Statement contain worthy and important goals. They also recognize, and thus help publicize and promote, matters that probably have not received sufficient attention. For instance, the Statement places emphasis on the need for more work in the field of money-laundering and against the other financial crimes associated with wildlife trafficking. It calls for more support to the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime, which is doing important work in supporting nations to respond more effectively to the criminal exploitation of fauna and flora.

In its introductory text, the Statement uses very realistic and honest language – “The need for decisive and urgent action to tackle the trafficking of endangered fauna and flora remains greater than ever. Despite efforts to date for many species, the illegal trade, and the poaching which fuels it, is an ongoing and growing problem. “

The Kasane Conference attracted some high-level participants; the fact that an Assistant Attorney General of the United States delivered remarks[iv], for example, demonstrates the elevated political attention this subject continues to attract. The involvement of the President of the host country (not the only Head-of-State in the room by the way) speaks volumes. There were, though, a few very noticeable absences on the part of individuals one would have expected to be in Kasane.

I am setting aside my usual old-cop-cynicism and I welcome what seems to have been a successful event. I intend no criticism whatsoever of the conference or its organizers. However, it is the retired international civil servant in me that is prompted to ask, ‘Where is this going?’ It is that period of my working life which makes me very aware of the very considerable time, money and effort that goes into organizing such a conference. The Statement alone will have taken hours and hours of drafting by civil servants (national and international) and no doubt more than an hour or two of review and discussion among delegations. The progress report will have involved days and days of work.

Which brings me back to the subject of ‘process’. What exactly is the status of these conferences and their outcomes? How is their worth and effectiveness to be measured? Are they, for example, offering added-value, or something significantly different, to the many other events that have taken place in recent years and those that are yet to come?

Meetings of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) have a clear and unquestionable legal, political and diplomatic status. There is no better illustration of this than the fact that 180 nations have acceded to the treaty. The text of the Convention is legally-binding upon those countries. The CITES non-compliance procedures can result in sanctions; as Lao PDR, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria (which also has not done enough to stop illegal trade in ivory) now know only too well.

It appears likely that the UN General Assembly will adopt a Resolution on wildlife trafficking before very long. Wildlife crime features prominently in at least one document[v] to be discussed at the forthcoming UN Crime Congress (to use its short title), which will be held in Qatar next month.

I know from years as a United Nations official that every hour spent preparing for, travelling to, and participating in a conference, was one less hour devoted to the provision of direct support to, in my case, the combating of wildlife trafficking. Many national agencies around the world are badly in need of such assistance.

Conferences, and the like, are undoubtedly important but the point comes where one sits listening to almost the same thing being said again and again. I have written elsewhere about the danger of falling into the trap of doing something for no worthier reason than being seen to do something. Or of engaging in group-hug sessions that allow everyone to go home feeling better but which, actually, may not have moved us substantially closer to the ultimate goal. Or organizing events without ensuring the right people are in the room.

At least ten fewer countries were represented in Kasane than in London. Although some nations travelled to Botswana which did not go to Britain, the numbers are nonetheless hardly impressive and the participation trend is certainly not upwards. Among the actions in the Kasane Statement, there does not appear to be any call for greater engagement in the process or for absentees to return to the fold. How many delegations will book tickets to Vietnam for next year? Or will be motivated to return to Botswana in 2017?

Adding the London Declaration and Kasane Statement actions together, there are now 39 activities for a diminishing number of nations to undertake. Is that logical? I dare say the authors of the two documents intend, or at least hope, that the countries of the world will respond to their rallying call. Are we confident that they are listening?

Not so many years ago, a similarly-sized group of nations and institutions showed great enthusiasm for safeguarding the future of tigers and, so, the Global Tiger Initiative was born. If you visit the GTI website today, there is one item relating to actions in 2015, and that was posted back in January. The very considerable fervour and political will for tiger conservation which had been built up seem, sadly, to now have dissipated.

We have a tendency, in our enthusiasm to act or in our frustration over the apparent ineffectiveness of existing processes, to try and reinvent the wheel. History, I would suggest, has yet to show us a more efficient working object than the wheel. Taking more and more different approaches may simply result in thinning the overall effort.

I am certainly no fan of business-as-usual. On the other hand, there is something to be said for, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ Or perhaps that ought to be, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it; see if you can improve it instead.’ In the case of the current process, for example, might it make more sense to organize regional conferences, rather than risk experiencing ever-falling numbers at further international events?

The very last thing we must allow to happen is for the current attention and commitment to combating wildlife trafficking to dissolve or dilute. Which is why I think it is reasonable and sensible to ask, ‘Where is this going?’ Or perhaps equally importantly, ‘Will this take us where we want to go?’

But whilst we mull over answers, let’s thank and congratulate the Kasane organizers and participants.

[i] https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/281289/london-wildlife-conference-declaration-140213.pdf

[ii] https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/415690/review-progress-kasane-conf-150317.pdf

[iii] https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/417231/kasane-statement-150325.pdf

[iv] http://www.justice.gov/opa/speech/assistant-attorney-general-john-c-cruden-delivers-remarks-kasane-conference-illegal

[v] http://www.unodc.org/documents/congress//Documentation/A-CONF.222-8/ACONF222_8_e_V1500538.pdf

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