Every year nearly half a billion shipping containers are transported across the globe. These movements are the lifeblood of global trade and yet, secreted within a relatively small number of containers are illegal consignments of drugs, hazardous waste, counterfeit goods, dual-use items destined for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programmes and small arms and light weapons that end up in the hands of terrorists or fuel civil wars.
Containerisation has changed the face of smuggling and become many smugglers’ weapon of choice. It has also made some of the biggest commercial shipping lines into the smugglers’ unwitting partners in crime and left customs authorities struggling to keep up.
But the information these shippers hold, if it were shared with enforcement authorities, could be a key element in the fight back against modern-day smuggling, SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) researchers Lawrence Dermody, Aaron Dunne and Hugh Griffiths maintain.
All customs authorities are under pressure to do their vital work without disrupting legitimate trade. Given the volume of container traffic coming through even medium-sized trading ports, they have to rely on whatever information they have on the containers’ origins and routing to identify the highest-risk containers—those worth intercepting and checking and, if found to contain consignments of concern, seizing.
Under pressure to cut costs and improve “efficiency”, customs authorities are pursuing policies of “data reduction”, “simplified procedures” and “post-export declarations”. All reduce the amount of information available to customs at the time when they could effectively intervene. Furthermore, the risk-management techniques customs authorities use to identify high-risk shipments, which are based on that information, are often rudimentary – with inadequate automated targeting capabilities. This is true even when there is substantial information readily available – far more than is legally required for import, export, transit or trans-shipment.
Capacity and legal framework are also key
Identifying the highest-risk containers is just the first challenge. Once identified, there need to be laws in place that support enforcement action and customs authorities need to have the capacity to carry it out. And what are the thresholds for taking action? These issues are particularly acute in the case of transit and trans-shipment where the container is only passing through a port and ultimately destined for another state, SIPRI notes.
SIPRI research suggests information is not systematically collected and therefore no, or limited, risk assessment takes place on the highest-risk container transport routes. Furthermore, in many states the legal basis for action is questionable, the capacity to act is limited and the threshold for action is set too high.
Filling the information gap
An initial mapping of the information environment associated with the movement of shipping containers suggests shipping companies hold the most comprehensive readily available information. UN expert groups and panels investigating recent sanctions breaches have found shipping industry-generated documentation contained indications about the potential illicit nature of the cargo.
Providing customs and other enforcement authorities with real-time access to shipping companies’ databases and systems would significantly expand the amount of information available for risk assessment. It would also have substantial benefits for both governments and shippers. If customs authorities get better at targeting the highest-risk consignments they will use their resources more efficiently and minimise disruption of legitimate trade.