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Jakarta Post

Quo vadis ASEAN'€™s war on transnational crime

  • Thesa Vance Nuansyah

    The Jakarta Post

Barcelona   /   Fri, March 20, 2015   /  06:38 am

According to an investigative report on transnational crime flows in the East Asia and the Pacific released in April 2013 by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, illicit money generated by transnational crime in the region reaches more than US$ 90 billion per year.

This shows that ASEAN'€™s effort to combat transnational crime, which started since 1976, has been ineffective.

Since 1976, ASEAN member states have declared war on transnational organized crime as it poses a tremendous threat to regional security.

They agreed to unite their efforts because every member country realized that fighting transnational crime was impossible if only handled by each member state alone.

Hence, in December 1997, ASEAN adopted the ASEAN Declaration on Transnational Crimes in Manila, and in March 1998 it signed the Manila Declaration on the Prevention and Control of Transnational Crimes.

Yet these efforts have led to little. Two member states, Cambodia and Laos, are respectively known as the world'€™s first-and third-largest cultivators of opium and poppies. Furthermore, Southeast Asia is well known as a transit hub for trafficking in persons and people smuggling to Australia and New Zealand given weak migration management systems.

Thus transnational crimes have obviously become a serious threat to regional security and jeopardize regional economic integration, with the start of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) at the end of this year.

First, the free movement of goods and capital not only promotes an integrated market with many economic benefits '€” reducing the costs of market access, eliminating price discrimination '€” but also potentially provokes massive smuggling, which could paralyze the economy of ASEAN member states.

Second, a competitive economic region that encourages the protection of consumers and the rights of intellectual property would seriously be violated by the transnational illicit flow of counterfeit goods and fraudulent medicine.

Third, an abundant flow of counterfeit goods would significantly decrease tax revenue, which constitutes an essential element of the AEC.

The increase of illicit activities related to transnational organized crime in Southeast Asia leads to the question of whether ASEAN'€™s effort to combat this type of crime has been serious.

We should refer to the ASEAN Plan of Action to Combat Transnational Crime, adopted in the second ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Transnational Crime (AMMTC) in 1999 in Yangon, Myanmar.

This action plan encourages member countries to expand efforts to combat transnational crime at the national, bilateral and regional level.

The AMMTC is the highest organ within ASEAN for combating transnational crimes and has adopted a five-year program focusing on information exchange, legal matters, law enforcement, training, institutional capacity building and extra-regional cooperation.

Unfortunately, there are some obstacles and challenges. First, the absence of appropriate institutions and the lack of effective coordination between them are the main obstacles here.

The AMMTC is not appropriate to properly handle issues and is unfortunately unable to ensure a sustainable response to transnational crime as it only consists of home ministries with very limited authority, with no compliance mechanism. Hence, this policymaking body seems incapable of combating transnational crime since it inevitably requires a cross-sector strategy and certainly needs a stronger body with full authority.

Additionally there is lack of effective coordination between the AMMTC and the relevant organs like ASEANPOL, ASEAN director-general of immigration departments and senior ASEAN officials on drug matters '€” all established as separate institutional mechanisms responsible for their own areas of cooperation, while the ASEAN Center for Combating Transnational Crime (ACTC) is yet to be set up.

Second, the challenges of enforcement lie in the absence of effective and efficient regional mutual legal assistance and disparities between internal priorities and regional cooperation priorities in combating transnational crime.

Almost all agreements or treaties on mutual legal assistance among ASEAN member states or between certain member states and non-ASEAN states are still bilateral '€” while combating transnational crime requires wider cooperation that involves several states.

However, since 2004 one multilateral agreement on mutual legal assistance among ASEAN member states has entered into force '€” the ASEAN Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty in Criminal Matters.

Unfortunately, it does not apply to several key matters such as the arrest or detention of any person with a view to the extradition of that person, the transfer of persons in custody to serve sentences, and the transfer of proceedings in criminal matters.

Additionally, the difference between domestic priorities and regional cooperation priorities in combating transnational crime has led to ineffective enforcement. Each member state tends only to prioritize combating crime that has a significant impact on its domestic interests.

Third, the fight against transnational crime absolutely requires extra-regional cooperation so such efforts can be multilaterally addressed, involving large-scale partnerships and huge resources.

In the past few years, ASEAN has enhanced its partnership through establishing multilateral cooperation along with its dialogue partners embodied in some forums and frameworks such as ASEAN+3, ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN and China Cooperative Operations in Response to Dangerous Drugs.

Unfortunately, such initiatives have fallen short of a significant breakthrough as they do not include specific principles of cooperation nor do they impose standards of behavior on participating countries, as scholars of ASEAN have noted.

Further constraints in extra-regional cooperation include corruption, domestic pressure, limited capabilities and high intra-regional variations. And all of these are the most common problems in ASEAN member states.

Therefore, ASEAN should address all these obstacles and challenges as its top priority.

It certainly requires stronger political will from each member state to take bigger responsibility and start to make serious efforts so we can ensure stability in the region.


The AMMTC is not appropriate to properly handle issues and is unfortunately unable to ensure a sustainable response to transnational crime.


The writer is a master'€™s student in international studies at Universitat de Barcelona, Spain.

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