Transnational Crime and ASEAN: A Security Perspective

Mathew Bukit

03/November/2016, Features

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Transnational Crime in Security Theory

Transnational crime traditionally refers to criminal activities that are conducted across countries, and violate the laws of more than one of these. The 2000 Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) defines the nature of transnational crime as a “structured group of three or more persons existing for a period of time and acting in concert with the aim of committing one or more serious crimes or offences… in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit.[1]” Given the multitude of activities that can be allocated into this broad definition, it is very difficult to devise a more precise definition and therefore challenging to operationalize transnational crime into policy or legislation.

Security theorists face additional challenges in reconciling theories about the organizational forms of transnational crime with the nature of the threats they pose to society and how to ultimately combat these.[2] Traditional understanding of the hierarchical and centralized organizational structures of transnational crime have been challenged by scholars and international organizations alike, with the European Commission stating that “traditional hierarchical structures are being replaced by loose networks of criminals.”[3] Europol later noted that “Organized crime groups are becoming increasingly heterogeneous and dynamically organized in structural terms, moving towards loose networks rather than pyramidal monoliths.”[4] Security theorists have posited that the traditional perception of “sophistication or entrepreneurial flair of networks”[5] may in fact be dated, and that the simple microeconomic principles of the supply and demand of illicit goods dictate the flexibility and resilience of transnational criminal groups.

The challenge for policymakers is to reconcile these competing perspectives on the organizational structures of transnational crime with existing criminal groups, which are heterogeneous in nature.[6] Arguably, it is important for policymakers to determine the applicability of these different theoretical structures to the reality of the operations of each transnational crime group, so that an appropriate response can target a specific organizational structure. It is also important to assess the traits and action patterns of groups to determine the level of response (on a spectrum of law-enforcement to military response) that is appropriate for the threat level that groups may represent to society.[7]

Globalization has acted as the main catalyst for transnational crime, which has surged since the second half of the Twentieth Century. Globalization has facilitated increased international flows of people, goods and capital, leading to the growth of licit and illicit economies.[8] Trade agreements such as the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area are strong indicators of this global economic shift, with ASEAN-China trade increasing from USD$130 billion in 2005 to as much as USD$480 billion by 2014.[9] Despite the huge benefit this provides to economic growth, increased transnational flows have provided greater opportunity for illicit trade to become embedded within licit flows.

The Economic and Social Costs of Transnational Crime

As the global economy shifts to accommodate more fluid movement of goods, capital and people, transnational crime proliferates, both in scale and in severity of operations. It is often believed that transnational crime flourishes only in states with weak rule of law, but more permeable borders have resulted in transnational crime posing a challenge even for states with a strong rule of law.[10]

Transnational crime can be reasonably securitized in to a state’s national security agenda, given that in extreme cases it can threaten the rule of law and even sovereignty itself. This would be the case if the scale of transnational crime were so pervasive that uncertainty over safety could discourage prospective foreign investors. Furthermore, with proceedings from illicit trade being reinvested back into licit money-laundering ventures, prospective investors may be further put off by the unfair competitive advantage of ventures operated by criminal groups.[11] Transnational crime also poses significant costs to the individual and to societies. In the specific case of drugs, trafficking has a direct impact on substance dependency and abuse, small-scale crime as well as HIV transmissions. Transnational crime groups may also cooperate with local criminals, increasing levels of corruption and violence.[12] Additionally, it can cause decreased productivity in the workplace, increased risk of work-related accidents and increased healthcare expenditure, all of which represent increased economic and social costs.[13] The exact cost of transnational crime on economic development is however difficult to calculate, as it is offset by laundered money subsidizing the world economy.[14]

Transnational crime is also inexorably linked to terrorism, a topic that has dominated the national security agendas of many states since the September 11th attacks. It is widely known that terrorist groups and transnational criminals have a symbiotic relationship, since terrorist groups fund themselves by criminal activities. For example, in the 1970s and 1980s, many Marxist-Leninist groups engaged primarily in domestic crimes for funding, such as bank robbery, extortion, or kidnapping in the country where they operated.[15] Terrorist groups have benefitted from the same opportunities that have been afforded to transnational criminals as a result of globalization. The criminal activities that terrorist groups engage in can be expanded to new markets for financial gain. For example, supporters of Hezbollah have engaged in various criminal schemes to raise funds, such as cigarette smuggling and coupon fraud in the United States, and smuggling and counterfeiting in loosely regulated border areas of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay.[16]  

Beyond engaging in transnational criminal enterprises themselves, terrorist groups often elicit the services of other transnational criminals such as for purchasing arms and forged documents. Policymakers and law enforcement must therefore target the mobilization of terrorist financing, a major vulnerability of terrorist operations, to stem both terrorism and transnational crime.[17]

Policy Responses

Transnational crime was increasingly considered a serious threat by a global agenda set by the hegemonic US in the 1990s. A global shift towards consolidating regionalism, especially within blocs such as Association of Southeast Asia (ASEAN) and the European Union, afforded law enforcement greater opportunities, scope and capacity to combat transnational crime.[18] The ASEAN Association of Chiefs of Police (ASEANAPOL) and the European Police Office are both regional policing agencies that have emerged from their respective blocs. Regional responses are becoming increasingly important foundations for transnational crime policy, especially considering that there is still an absence of global strategies for combatting many categories of major transnational crimes, such as the production and trafficking of heroin and cocaine.[19]

Government policies have largely targeted individual criminals and organizations involved in illicit markets, as opposed to the illicit markets themselves. In the context of drug trafficking, law enforcement policies usually target the leadership and assets of criminal organizations.[20] These policies have achieved great successes, particularly in cases where escalating violence threatened state sovereignty (for example, the drug trade in Columbia during the 1980s and 1990s).[21] Further testament to the successes of tactical law enforcement operations in combatting criminal organizations was evident in the 1999 UNODC survey on active transnational organized crime groups. By the time the survey was eventually published in 2002, as many as 50% of the groups identified by the survey had been dismantled.[22] However, this approach does have its limitations. Law enforcement operations may be affected by corruption, due to coercion or bribery of officials. Furthermore, targeting individual organized crime groups may leave an organizational vacuum where competing criminal groups may fill this void.[23]

A more comprehensive approach that can incorporate additional actors with a stake in society should be considered. The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime is an effective tool, which provides a legal framework that can be utilized by governments to identify and dismantle transnational organized crime.[24] Non-governmental organizations and national health ministries can provide measures and policies that help to protect the victims of transnational organized crime in addition to raising awareness and providing education about the costs of transnational crime to ordinary citizens.[25] Strengthening of judicial systems can also stem the threat of corruption in conjunction with law enforcement operations. This goes beyond a narrow law enforcement approach, with a scope often limited to dismantling criminal operations. It is important to consider both the effectiveness of a law enforcement approach on the operational structures of transnational crime combined with the necessary role that additional actors and assistance can play to maintain economic security and protect potential victims from the social costs of transnational crime.

ASEAN and Transnational Crime

ASEAN is currently facing a significant challenge in reconciling the nationally sovereign nature of policing with the heterogeneous and transnational nature of organized crime. The UNODC claimed earlier this year that the public security and safety institutions (such as ASEANAPOL) that aim to safeguard the region are better equipped to deal with localized crime and are not suited for intergovernmental approaches to tackling transnational crime.[26] This is especially concerning given increasing ASEAN integration, when considering the correlation between transnational crime and globalization. ASEAN continues to angle towards regionalism through initiatives such as the ASEAN Economic Community and the Master Plan on ASEAN connectivity. The growing drug trade has exploited the resulting intra-ASEAN flows of goods and people. For example, heroin and other synthetic drugs are produced within some ASEAN states and trafficked to and consumed in other states in the bloc.[27] Given that Myanmar is a major producer of synthetic drugs in the region and a transit hub for ASEAN-bound heroin, narcotics trafficking is especially pertinent to Cambodia and others in the Greater Mekong Sub-region.

Despite the threats of transnational crime, ASEAN has responded with low levels of political action, which seemingly goes against nominal pledges to securitize transnational crime throughout the region.[28] The adoption of various declarations has failed to progress into real action, indicating that the response to transnational crime has only been rhetorical. One example is ASEANAPOL, a cooperative mechanism for ASEAN law enforcement. Despite its institutional potential, with one of its major objectives being to “forge stronger regional cooperation in policing,”[29] its scope is limited by the ASEAN fundamental principles of non-intervention and consensus, to the point where even accepting observers and dialogue partners requires ASEANAPOL consensus.[30]

Transnational crime directly addresses the concept of national sovereignty and this is a significant challenge for the guiding principles of ASEAN. Despite the fact that projects like the ASEAN Political-Security Blueprint 2025 aim to “enhance consultations and cooperation on multilateral issues of common interest and concern to project an ASEAN voice and develop common positions”,[31] the preference for consensus and non-intervention means that individual domestic agendas always supersede the ASEAN agenda. Given the diverse economic, political and development spectrum across ASEAN, it is difficult to foresee an integrated and comprehensive approach to transnational crime being adopted without a more flexible approach to ASEAN’s guiding principles.

Whilst a comprehensive inter-state response to transnational crime will ultimately entail the surrendering of a small portion of sovereignty, inaction could instead lead to transnational crime eroding sovereignty through a weakened rule of law.[32] This could come in the form of complementary inter-regional agreements that facilitate transnational law-enforcement responses to transnational crime. To make real progress towards addressing transnational crime in the region, ASEAN needs to accommodate a more flexible understanding of non-intervention, which can then empower associations like ASEANAPOL. Even with a more flexible interpretation of non-intervention, disparity in levels of development and poverty across ASEAN will continue to pose a significant challenge to intra-regional policy. ASEAN should move away from extreme and empty rhetoric on transnational crime, which can be misleading to the public and encourage moral binaries where, for example, anyone involved with drugs is reduced to the sole identity of a criminal.[33] This in turn could prevent escalation such as that which we have recently seen in the Philippines, resulting in the extrajudicial killings of thousands of people.[34]

Security theory can provide guidance on how to integrate measures beyond law enforcement into a comprehensive approach towards addressing the heterogeneous nature of transnational crime. However, the principles of consensus and non-interference in ASEAN currently prevent the emergence of a foundation on which to build an integrated approach. Without law enforcement operations with a regional scope that can address the reality that crime is perpetrated across borders, a more comprehensive approach to transnational crime cannot be realized. ASEAN should turn to harmonize laws to facilitate legal collaboration, allowing transnational crime to first be defined through the lens of inter-regional criminal responses rather than securitization.[35]  Once ASEAN has consolidated a cohesive criminal approach it can then look towards more integrated policy solutions.

Bibliography

"ASEAN-CHINA Free Trade Area Business Portal". 2016. Asean-Cn.Org. http://www.asean-cn.org/index.php?m=content&c=index&a=show&catid=245&id=105.

Collins, Alan. Contemporary Security Studies. 2013. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Commission of the European Communities. 2001. Towards A European Strategy For Preventing Organised Crime: Joint Report From Commission Services And Europol. Brussels: European Commission.

Crawford, Neta C. 2003. "Just War Theory And The U.S. Counterterror War". Perspective On Politics 1 (1): 5-25. doi:10.1017/s1537592703000021.

Emmers, Ralf. 2002. The Securitization Of Transnational Crime In ASEAN. Singapore: Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies. https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/rsis-pubs/WP39.pdf.

Europol. 2006. Organized Crime Threat Assessment 2006. Hague: Europol.

Laniel, Laurent. 1999. "Drugs And Globalization: An Equivocal Relationship". International Social Science Journal 51 (160): 239-240. doi:10.1111/1468-2451.00192.

"Objectives And Functions". 2016. Aseanapol.Org. http://www.aseanapol.org/about-aseanapol/objectives-and-functions.

"Organized Crime Threatens Peace And Prosperity In An Integrated Southeast Asia". 2016. Unodc.Org. https://www.unodc.org/southeastasiaandpacific/en/2016/02/organized-crime-southeast-asia/story.html.

"Policy Guidelines For Accepting Observers And Dialogue Partners With ASEANAPOL". 2016. Aseanapol.Org. http://www.aseanapol.org/guidelines/policy-guidelines-for-accepting-observers-and-dialogue-partners-with-aseanapol.

Samean, Lay and Ananth Baliga. 2016. "PM Name-Drops Duterte In Citing Drug Concerns". Phnom Penh Post. http://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/pm-name-drops-duterte-citing-drug-concerns.

The ASEAN Secratariat. 2016. ASEAN Political-Security Community Blueprint 2025. Jakarta: The ASEAN Secratariat.

"Transnational Organized Crime: The Globalized Illegal Economy". 2016. Unodc.Org. https://www.unodc.org/toc/en/crimes/organized-crime.html.

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. 2002. Results Of A Pilot Survey Of Forty Selected Organized Criminal Groups In Sixteen Countries. Global Programme Against Transnational Organized Crime. UNODC. https://www.unodc.org/pdf/crime/publications/Pilot_survey.pdf.

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. 2010. Globalization Of Crime [Electronic Resource]: A Transnational Organized Crime Threat Assessment. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

United Nations. 2004. United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime And The Protocols Thereto. New York: United Nations. http://www.unodc.org/documents/middleeastandnorthafrica/organised-crime/UNITED_NATIONS_CONVENTION_AGAINST_TRANSNATIONAL_ORGANIZED_CRIME_AND_THE_PROTOCOLS_THERETO.pdf.


[1] United Nations. 2004. United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime And The Protocols Thereto. New York: United Nations. http://www.unodc.org/documents/middleeastandnorthafrica/organised-crime/UNITED_NATIONS_CONVENTION_AGAINST_TRANSNATIONAL_ORGANIZED_CRIME_AND_THE_PROTOCOLS_THERETO.pdf.

[2] Collins, Alan. 2013. Contemporary Security Studies. p. 347

[3] Commission of the European Communities. 2001. Towards a European strategy for preventing organised crime: Joint report from Commission Services and Europol. Brussels: European Commission, p. 8. 


[4] Europol, Organized Crime Threat Assessment 2006. e Hague, Europol, 2006, p. 7. 


[5] Collins, Alan. Contemporary Security Studies. 2013. p. 349

[6] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. 2002. Results Of A Pilot Survey Of Forty Selected Organized Criminal Groups In Sixteen Countries. Global Programme Against Transnational Organized Crime. UNODC. https://www.unodc.org/pdf/crime/publications/Pilot_survey.pdf.

[7] Collins, Alan. 2013. Contemporary Security Studies. pp. 349-350

[8] Ibid., 350

[9] "ASEAN-CHINA Free Trade Area Business Portal". 2016. Asean-Cn.Org. http://www.asean-cn.org/index.php?m=content&c=index&a=show&catid=245&id=105.

[10] Collins, Alan. 2013. Contemporary Security Studies. p. 347

[11] Ibid., 356

[12] "Transnational Organized Crime: The Globalized Illegal Economy". 2016. Unodc.Org. https://www.unodc.org/toc/en/crimes/organized-crime.html.

[13] Collins, Alan. 2013. Contemporary Security Studies. p. 354

[14] Laniel, Laurent. 1999. "Drugs And Globalization: An Equivocal Relationship". International Social Science Journal 51 (160): p. 240. doi:10.1111/1468-2451.00192.

[15] Collins, Alan. 2013. Contemporary Security Studies. p. 353

[16] Ibid.

[17] Crawford, Neta C. 2003. "Just War Theory And The U.S. Counterterror War". Perspective On Politics 1 (1): p. 20. doi:10.1017/s1537592703000021.

[18] Andreas and Nadelmann. 2006. In Collins, Alan. Contemporary Security Studies. 2003. p. 357

[19] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. 2010. Globalization Of Crime [Electronic Resource]: A Transnational Organized Crime Threat Assessment. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. p. 21

[20] Collins, Alan. 2013. Contemporary Security Studies. p. 358

[21] Ibid.

[22] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. 2002. Results Of A Pilot Survey Of Forty Selected Organized Criminal Groups In Sixteen Countries. Global Programme Against Transnational Organized Crime. UNODC. https://www.unodc.org/pdf/crime/publications/Pilot_survey.pdf.

[23] Collins, Alan. 2013. Contemporary Security Studies. p. 358

[24] "Transnational Organized Crime: The Globalized Illegal Economy". 2016. Unodc.Org. https://www.unodc.org/toc/en/crimes/organized-crime.html.

[25] Ibid.

[26] "Organized Crime Threatens Peace And Prosperity In An Integrated Southeast Asia". 2016. Unodc.Org. https://www.unodc.org/southeastasiaandpacific/en/2016/02/organized-crime-southeast-asia/story.html.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Emmers, Ralf. 2002. The Securitization Of Transnational Crime In ASEAN. Singapore: Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies. p. 16 https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/rsis-pubs/WP39.pdf.

[29] "Objectives And Functions". 2016. Aseanapol.Org. http://www.aseanapol.org/about-aseanapol/objectives-and-functions.

[30] "Policy Guidelines For Accepting Observers And Dialogue Partners With ASEANAPOL". 2016. Aseanapol.Org. http://www.aseanapol.org/guidelines/policy-guidelines-for-accepting-observers-and-dialogue-partners-with-aseanapol.

[31] The ASEAN Secratariat. 2016. ASEAN Political-Security Community Blueprint 2025. Jakarta: The ASEAN Secratariat. p. 35

[32] Emmers, Ralf. 2002. The Securitization Of Transnational Crime In ASEAN. Singapore: Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies. p. 19 https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/rsis-pubs/WP39.pdf.

[33] Laniel, Laurent. 1999. "Drugs And Globalization: An Equivocal Relationship". International Social Science Journal 51 (160): p. 239. doi:10.1111/1468-2451.00192.

[34] Samean, Lay and Ananth Baliga. 2016. "PM Name-Drops Duterte In Citing Drug Concerns". Phnom Penh Post. http://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/pm-name-drops-duterte-citing-drug-concerns.

[35] Emmers, Ralf. 2002. The Securitization Of Transnational Crime In ASEAN. Singapore: Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies. p. 20 https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/rsis-pubs/WP39.pdf.