Dossier: Engaging partners

Combating drug trafficking: how shipping lines can become Customs partners

21 February 2024
By the World Shipping Council

Many law enforcement agencies have seen a dramatic increase in drug trafficking over the past five years, as well as in the number of violent events and the amount of social disruption linked to this trade. Over the years, shipping lines have invested significant resources in combating the movement of illicit goods using their vessels. Measures include cargo screening and the monitoring of containers using tracking devices or sensor systems indicating container breaches and temperature changes. Some carriers also use automated analytical tools to detect anomalies in shipping manifest information. Although ocean liner personnel are not law enforcement officers, they can support Customs, the navy, coast guard and police by identifying anomalies and reporting findings. However, they often have no direct communication mechanism with enforcement authorities, and they have to negotiate through a maze of legal challenges in order to ensure that data can be provided without breaching different countries’ data protection and confidentiality safeguards. There is also often no formal communication channel between the various law enforcement parties involved.

Over the past two years, in recognizing the urgency of combating the abuse of maritime cargo and vessels to move drugs, the World Shipping Council (WSC) and its carrier members have strengthened their partnership with Customs, law enforcement and supply chain partners across the world. The meeting which initiated this cooperation brought together representatives from the World Customs Organization (WCO), the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), several Customs authorities, WSC and its member liner carriers. This was followed by a series of meetings and initiatives aimed at building understanding and knowledge of each party’s objectives, methods and ways of working.

Mutual trust has grown quickly between the partners, reflected in WSC members’ participation in the global enforcement operation named TIN CAN, which was featured in a previous edition of this magazine. The operation stands as a model for successful collaboration. Led by the WCO and UNODC and involving Customs authorities and other law enforcement agencies from 58 countries in cooperation with WSC member carriers, it resulted in 43 arrests and 158 cases, taking 98,734 kg of cocaine and 314 kg of cannabis off the market.

During Operation TIN CAN, communication channels were established by the WCO between carriers and law enforcement authorities, and shipping lines shared information on suspicious activities.

Building on the work done during the Operation, WSC, the WCO and UNODC have identified several action points which include:

  • developing a training curriculum for Customs and law enforcement personnel enabling them to understand commercial and operational practices, import-export processes and other critical aspects of liner shipping;
  • promoting data exchange between authorities and carriers on risk indicators and suspicious cargoes – key data to be exchanged should be collaboratively identified and legal and security constraints duly addressed;
  • standardizing definitions and practices for abandoned containers which create legal, operational and financial challenges for Customs, port authorities and carriers alike;
  • establishing procedures for the reporting of suspected illicit activities by seafarers in order to protect them from being penalized and/or arrested and guarantee them fair treatment.

WSC has also contributed to the Guidelines on Cooperation between Customs and Port Authorities published by the WCO and the International Association of Ports and Harbors (IAPH) and is working on developing a section of the Guidelines explaining how Customs, port authorities and carriers can collaborate with a view to combating illicit goods trafficking.

In so doing, it draws inspiration from the successful model established through Operation TIN CAN, as well as from the work done with other organizations and governments. WSC is especially involved in activities carried out by the European Union (EU) and the “Border Five” countries (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States). It is currently engaged with EU Ports Alliance against drugs trafficking, an initiative being launched under the Belgian Presidency of the EU, thereby contributing to this important focus on multi-stakeholder collaboration to address the threats posed by drug trafficking.

The fight against illicit activities within the maritime supply chain is not a recent endeavour for WSC and its member liner carriers. Since 2001, WSC has partnered closely with governments around the world to develop the legal frameworks and support members’ practical implementation of the advance cargo security mechanisms that are vital for cargo risk assessment and effective supply chain security. Moreover, WSC has been a firm advocate of and contributor to the SAFE Framework of Standards since its adoption in 2005. More recently, WSC has been involved in the development of Guidelines for the Prevention and Suppression of the Smuggling of Wildlife in partnership with the Belgian government, the Bureau International des Containers (BIC) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), for submission to the UN International Maritime Organization’s Facilitation Committee this spring.

WSC also encourages liner companies to participate in voluntary trusted trader programmes, such as the US Customs Trade Partnership against Terrorism (CTPAT) and the EU’s Authorised Economic Operator Programme, thereby demonstrating their commitment to safety and security, to the protection of their staff against organized crime and to the prevention of corruption.

Liner carriers will not tolerate having their services abused by criminals. The now very close collaboration between carriers and the “Border Five” countries as well as the deepening multilateral collaboration with the EU are already delivering results. WSC and its members look forward to strengthening their collaboration with Customs authorities and law enforcement agencies in an effort to help fight drug trafficking. Administrations wishing to engage in a dialogue with shipping lines are invited to contact WSC directly (using the contact details below).

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