ASEAN members working with U.N. to battle cross-border crime

ASEAN members working with U.N. to battle cross-border crime

Tom Abke

United Nations officials and 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed to combat organized crime by improving border security and information sharing during a meeting in early May 2018 in Thailand.

Rising legal trade in the Indo-Pacific has been matched by criminal activities from “local to transnational levels” involving the distribution of counterfeit goods as well as human, drug and wildlife trafficking, said Thailand’s Justice Minister Prajin Juntong in his address at the ASEAN 2025: Synchronizing the Economic and Security Agendas conference in Bangkok.

Improving border management to slow the growth of cross-border crime and related security challenges were central topics at the conference. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and Thailand are searching for solutions to cross-border crime in the runup to Thailand’s chairmanship of ASEAN in 2019. “Illegal activities like trafficking often mirror legal flows and movements of goods and services,” Prajin said. “And as the economy expands, criminal and even terrorist networks will look for ways to benefit. This is why we are partnering with UNODC on border liaison offices, or BLOs. They have the ability to gather states to discuss problems and formulate strategies, but also to offer practical solutions.”

The 76 BLOs across the ASEAN region are set up near border crossings and run by UNODC for national law enforcement agencies to promote cross-border cooperation. They also distribute intelligence gathered on traffickers and other transnational criminals, according to UNODC.

A partnership with UNODC has been valuable to Vietnam, where police stationed along the border with Laos arrested traffickers carrying more than U.S. $2 million worth of heroin and other drugs. The arrests were reported March 28, 2018, by the Hanoi-based newspaper VN Express. It was the second major drug seizure of the month. UNODC maintains a central office in Hanoi and 10 BLOs along Vietnam’s borders, the agency said, and has been training law enforcement officers in combating transnational crime. In 2015, it began supplying border officers with special computer tablets with preinstalled communication, learning and investigation tools. (Pictured: Vu Chu Senh, right, and his wife, Mua Thi Do, are posed behind a table with 489 packs of heroin they attempted to smuggle into Vietnam from Laos in January 2018, according to Vietnamese police.)

ASEAN 2025 was the fourth conference on border management organized by Thailand and UNODC since 2015. It is closely tied to other strategic discussions related to economic and security integration among ASEAN members, such as the one held at the U.N. Conference Centre on March 27, 2018, in Bangkok.  There, UNODC representatives gathered with public security and law enforcement experts from ASEAN countries and their counterparts from Australia, China, Japan, South Korea and the United States to discuss developing a new Transnational Organized Crime Threat Assessment for the ASEAN region by 2019.

UNODC regional representative Jeremy Douglas, who participated in both meetings, spoke with reporters on a break at the ASEAN 2025 conference. “As ASEAN integration continues and accelerates,” he said, “the disparities between countries of the region are becoming more obvious, and this includes significant differences in capacities to manage borders. The problem is that transnational organized crime takes advantage of disparities and vulnerabilities. UNODC — and the U.N. — will continue to assist the region, and what is agreed here will be supported at a practical level through our border management and other development programs.”

Tom Abke is a FORUM contributor reporting from Singapore.