16 April 2015

Do we really need an EU Action Plan to combat illegal wildlife trade?

As it was announced, yesterday, the MEPs for Wildlife Group together with Born Free held a Conference in the European Parliament about wildlife trafficking. At the occasion, Born Free announced its latest report "End Wildlife Trafficking" which presents a number of recommendations for an EU Action Plan on illegal wildlife trade.

Indeed, the main focus of the conference was to support the drafting of an EU Action Plan to combat illegal wildlife trade, and for this purpose several speakers were invited to present the situation. 

NGOs like WWFWildlife SOS and LAGA explained the scale of illegal wildlide trade in Latin America, South Asia and Africa respectively. At the same time, there was a representative of the Belgian Border Agency who talked about the Customs' activities at Brussels Airport and an officer from UNODC who presented the conclusions on the 12 studies that have been done so far based on the ICCWC Wildlife and Forest Crime Analytic Toolkit (none of them in the EU by the way). Finally, MEPs from the Wildlife Group also made some statements supporting the idea of an Action Plan. 

The representative of the European Commission updated the audience on the latest activities towards enhancing the fight against illegal wildlife trade. He notably announced the cooperation of Member States under the coordination of EUROPOL in a cover operation as well as the new rules on import of hunting trophies. Judges and prosecutors as well as the business sector are also being involved in these matters.

During the whole session the great majority of the speakers called for a new EU Action Plan to be developed by the European Commission, and I believe this deserves some thoughts:

The EU Wildlife Trade legislation dates back to 1997 with the adoption of the so-called Basic Regulation. In 2007, the European Commission adopted a Commission Recommendation on enforcement identifying a set of actions to enhance and improve enforcement measures at the level of Member States to implement the Basic Regulation. 

Some of these Recommendations were called for in one way or another one year ago as a result of the public consultation and the Conference organised by the European Commission and yesterday. Some of them are (and I cite from the 2007 Recommendation):

imposing sufficiently high penalties for wildlife trade offences; ensuring that all relevant enforcement agencies have adequate financial and personnel resources and that they have access to specialized equipment and relevant expertise; carrying out training or awareness raising activities for enforcement agencies, prosecution services and the judiciary; ensuring that all relevant enforcement agencies have access to adequate training; ensuring in-country enforcement; establishing procedures for coordinating enforcement among all their relevant national authorities; facilitating access for relevant enforcement officers to existing resources, tools and channels of communication for the exchange of information; sharing relevant information about significant trends, seizures and court cases at the regular meetings of the Enforcement Group as well as intersessionally; co-operating with relevant enforcement agencies in other Member States on investigations of offences under Regulation (EC) No 338/97; exchanging information on penalties for wildlife trade offences to ensure consistency in application; liaising closely with CITES Management Authorities and law enforcement agencies in source, transit and consumer countries outside of the Community as well as the CITES Secretariat, INTERPOL and the WCO to help detect, deter and prevent illegal trade in wildlife through the exchange of information and intelligence.

Probably, the only elements missing in 2007 were the need to link illegal wildlife trade to transnational organised crime, to money laundering and to corruption, and the request to enhance the role of EUROPOL.

One may think:

If the needs were clear in 2007, why are we still demanding the same things in 2015?

To answer this question we have to turn our heads to the addresses of these recommendations, the EU Member States, and see what has been done at their level.

Unfortunately I could not find any document related to the monitoring of the implementation of these Recommendations, probably because they are just that: Recommendations. However, in the course of my research on enforcement measures in three EU Member States, I can say that two out of three fall short of having implemented any of these points. 

At the same time, I was unable to find any indication on the Member States’ performance in relation to the Wildlife Basic Regulation, or any Court case on the infringement of Member States obligations. One may conclude that little implementation has been done at their level, as one MEP mentioned yesterday. 

Even EUROPOL has noted that little information coming from Member States reaches them regarding wildlife crime (as often such crimes are not investigated by police). This information is vital for the Agency to raise environmental crime and wildlife trafficking as a priority in the EU in its EU Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment, which is the document that serves as the guide to determine EUROPOL’s areas of action. Without the information coming from the Member States the involvement of EUROPOL is less likely.

Taking this into consideration:

do we really need yet another an Action Plan with a long list of requests that Member States are unable to fulfil?

Some have called for a stronger line from the European Commission, but one has to be realistic: on the one hand, its powers are established in the Lisbon Treaty, and the Commission cannot go beyond what is in their remit. Even if it could, it was made clear yesterday that the new Commission is still considering the necessity of such a Plan in the light of its priorities: growth, jobs and investments. It should be expected that an Action Plan will not receive much support on that side.

Having said that, the statement of the representative of the Belgian CITES Management Authority yesterday is also very true: an Action Plan could help to raise awareness and increase the profile of illegal wildlife trade at national level, hopefully mobilising the necessary political will and resources to start taking action.

MEP Catherine Bearder started the second session asking: how can the Commission, the Parliament and the Council (the Member States) work together to change the situation? Difficult to answer. It is clear that there are now a number of committed MEPs ready to raise the political profile of illegal wildlife trade, and this is a promising start.

I believe that rather than insisting on an Action Plan, ways should be found to bring the Member States on board and assist them in implementing selected recommendations. 

Maybe one way to do so is inviting them to discuss within the EU Enforcement Group if and how they have advanced with the 2007 Recommendation and what are their most problematic issues. At the same time, I believe there is plenty of room for the MEPS for Wildlife Group to request for specific studies and organise targeted mini conferences on the points identified inviting experts in the field and all stakeholders involved.

I certainly hope that those empty seats yesterday could be filled with Member State’s representatives next time! This is a combat worth fighting for, and yesterday I could only see committed people, ready to give their best and to stand a long fight. Great conference and great speakers! 

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