COMBATING an extensive phenomenon like cross-border crime in the quest for financial gain obviously first requires an adequate legal framework. Above all, legally it has to be made a criminal offence for a person to participate in a criminal organisation. To date there has been no powerful international instrument to deal with these issues and to combat all forms of cross-border crime. This gap has recently been filled by the "United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organised Crime," and its three protocols to combat illicit firearms; illicit trafficking in persons; and the trafficking in illicit transport of migrants. The convention has two key objectives. The first objective is to eliminate the difference within national legal systems, which in the past has blocked mutual assistance amongst countries. The second objective is to set up standards for national laws so that they can effectively combat organised crime. The convention also attempts to attack the deep-rooted cause of cross-border crime, which is profit. It includes forceful measures to enable law enforcement officers to fight cross-border organised crime effectively.
The UN convention offers a complete and institutional legal framework to combat cross-border organised crime. The convention explains in detail the concept of the offence of organised crime which includes offences, customs has traditionally had competence to deal with. Such offences are trafficking in drugs, psychotropic substances, cultural objects, nuclear materials, firearms, stolen vehicles, money laundering etc. The convention criminalises money laundering and corruption as well as defines measures to combat these activities. It has provisions to confiscate and seize criminal assets and the proceeds of crime. It provides measures regarding jurisdiction, extradition, mutual legal assistance, protection of witnesses and victims.
The convention encourages states to take necessary measures and adopt the appropriate arrangements to use special investigative and control techniques in matters of movement of goods, capital and persons, which are already currently used by many customs administrations around the world. It lays down prevention measures aimed at reducing opportunities for criminal groups to participate in legal markets on the basis of proceeds acquired through criminal activities. It provides, in cases of cross border crime, a whole series of measures to strengthen and improve the action and effectiveness of enforcement agencies.
The convention calls for co-operation between law enforcement agencies to enhance effectiveness of the action to combat the offences covered by the convention. This includes conclusion of agreements or arrangements, setting up channels of communication to facilitate the secure and rapid exchange of information, conducting joint investigations, exchange of personnel and setting up of joint teams. It calls for collection and exchange of information on the nature of cross border organised crime in order to develop and share analytical expertise. The convention calls for training and technical assistance, especially in areas of customs competence such as controls on contraband, controls in free trade zones and free ports, and analysis of routes and techniques used by criminal organisations. The Customs administration of Bangladesh, which is a part of the national mechanism of the country to combat cross border crime, will be greatly strengthened by the provisions of the convention, especially when these are incorporated into the national legal systems.
Bangladesh has a long, continuous and porous border with India. It has a significant length of boundary with Myanmar too. In addition, Bangladesh also has maritime boundary with both India and Myanmar. Over the years the border areas and sea routes have become heavenly dens for organised criminal gangs, some of which have set up syndicates in and around the border areas while others operate from deep inside the country. These syndicates are involved in smuggling of various kinds of contraband and high duty goods as well as drugs, human trafficking and various types of cross border crime. It is not possible to draw up an exhaustive list of sectors in which the criminal groups are active, because these sectors vary according to different situation and are often influenced by local factors. However, such criminal organisations are flexible and extremely opportunistic.
These syndicates also have business relations with crime syndicates on other side of the borders and together they maintain a safe and protected network for illicit activities and criminal operations. Bountiful opportunities in the border areas that include weak administrative and legal infrastructure and non-operation amongst the various law enforcement agencies, have allowed crime syndicates to thrive and carry on business activities virtually without any hindrance. These criminal organisations distort the conditions of free trade, have unlimited availability of source of finance, resort to violence, intimidation and corruption and often create other forms of illicit trade, especially tax fraud.
Although customs is the chief functionary for controlling smuggling in the border areas, other agencies in Bangladesh too carry out anti-smuggling activities. The BDR and police have been assigned with many of the anti-smuggling powers of customs and the later has been relegated to the position of a second-fiddle in this respect. Customs control extends now only to the authorised routes and even here there is indiscriminate and unrestricted interference from other agencies. However, as smuggling is a large scale illegal business activity which also involves crime, it is true that customs cannot control it alone, rather it requires the support of other agencies of the government. Therefore, there is a need for co-operation and co-ordination amongst these agencies, where customs, by virtue of its tax, economic and enforcement roles, should be the predominant player. In this connection, both in the general interest and in the interest of Bangladesh Customs itself, it is important to develop systems of strategic and operational cooperation with other law enforcement agencies with emphasis on the importance of customs' legal and operational roles.
It is high time for the National Board of Revenue (NBR) to become aware of the virtually unchecked expansion of cross-border organised crime and the threat it poses to the national economy, the well-being of the populace and democratic stability of the country. It should realise that customs is an important player in the fight against cross-border organised crime and consequently it also must be prepared to co-ordinate action plans to combat such crime in conjunction with other enforcement agencies. Considering the United Nations initiative to establish a convention to combat cross-border organised crime, it should initiate steps to implement the common enforcement strategy, as laid down in the convention.
The writer is the Permanent Representative of Bangladesh to the World Customs Organisation, Brussels, Belgium