Anti-corruption tools exist – now they must be used to help fight illegal wildlife trade

Fourteen years ago, the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) was adopted by the UN General Assembly, entering into force two years later in 2005. Once adopted, December 9 was chosen for International Anti-Corruption Day – which brings us to now..

UN anti corruption

The 12 years since UNCAC’s adoption has seen a growing recognition of the pervasive nature of corruption which permeates all aspects of life, in one form or another. No country is exempt from this global scourge. Unfortunately, the role corruption plays as the greatest facilitator of the illegal wildlife trade, a transnational organised crime worth up to a staggering $23 billion year, has not received the attention it demands, despite frequent reference to UNCAC in many high-profile resolutions as a critical tool in efforts to tackle illicit trafficking in fauna and flora; critical because it can aid international cooperation and facilitate the use of techniques such as mutual legal assistance and asset recovery.

Cooperation across borders is crucial if the international community is serious about tackling corruption and bringing to justice those benefiting most from the insidious illegal trade in species of fauna and flora. There is yet to be any reported use of UNCAC in any criminal justice proceedings against individuals charged with environmental crime offences, let alone illegal wildlife trade offences.

Labora Sitorus (c) metrotvnews

Corrupt Indonesian cop Labora Sitorus (c) metrotvnews

However, there are promising signs that things are changing. The latest landmark UN General Assembly resolution on Tackling illicit trafficking in wildlife is the strongest call yet for the use of UNCAC to address corruption and the transnational illicit trade in wildlife, timber and plants it helps facilitate.

And so, with momentum building in recent years, it was with some degree of optimism EIA attended the 7th Conference of State Parties to UNCAC in Vienna this November, two years since the last was held in St Petersburg when EIA presented at a high-level side event, addressing the nexus between corruption and the illegal wildlife trade. Remarkably, that was the first time this issue had ever been raised within the confines of UNCAC – but, sadly, efforts to introduce language into the convention that would directly reference the role corruption played in illegal wildlife trade were thwarted.

It was hoped this year would be different. Language would be introduced and unanimously supported for adoption within the text of the convention. After a hectic and tiring week, EIA and others were again left with a sense of deep frustration at an opportunity yet again missed. The language proposed to be included within the convention directly referencing illegal wildlife trade was opposed and the chance to hammer home the utility of UNCAC as a tool to combat illegal wildlife trade was lost.

Shuidong corruption grab

A member of the Shuidiong ivory trafficking syndicate boasts of how corruption makes their crimes possible (c) EIAimage

EIA was not alone in feeling disappointed with UNCAC again failing to recognise the convention as an essential tool to combat the illegal wildlife trade. As the conference came to a close the Plenary Hall, led by the UK, heard the statements of 17 supporting governments equally disheartened that UNCAC had failed to acknowledge its importance in international efforts to combat the illegal wildlife trade.

One would have thought the UN would have been keen to be seen to be addressing the issue within UNCAC, especially considering that within the same week as the conference took place the United Nations Deputy Secretary General Amina J Mohammed was accused of alleged corrupt practices aiding the illegal exportation of over $300 million of timber from Nigeria before taking office, an accusation she vehemently denies.

With delegates leaving Vienna with some of the last comments in their ears concerning corruption’s role in the illegal wildlife trade there is still hope that the messages will not go unheeded.

Hopefully, on International Anti-Corruption Day next year we will be able to look back on a year in which UNCAC was used to aid investigations in transnational wildlife trafficking cases; a year where more anti-corruption units collaborated with anti-wildlife trafficking taskforces; a year of prosecutions of those risking the least and profiting the most from a trade driving so many species towards extinction.

Perhaps in two years, at the 8th Conference of State Parties to UNCAC, Parties will finally and formally recognise the importance of UNCAC and the role it must play in global efforts to combat not only corruption but also the burgeoning and highly destructive illegal trade in wildlife. Hopefully.