An ambassador for countering transnational crime
11 Nov 2013|

Harvested poppy capsules

The Australian Crime Commission has warned that a significant amount of Australia’s organised crime problem is generated overseas. Foreign countries are often the sources of drugs and guns, and  may provide the bases where criminal syndicates are organised, or house the banks where money is laundered. Criminal gangs might also undermine the governments and economies of neighbours. With all of these vectors in play, Australians will feel the effects of offshore-based crime in some way.

But while our domestic arrangements have received significant attention lately, there’s been little mention of how we should enhance our ability to attack the problem of organised crime when it’s based offshore.

There’s something the Australian Government could do right now, and it’d be cheap and quick to organise: it could add responsibility for serious and organised crime to the portfolio of an existing Ambassador with specific security responsibilities. This isn’t a new idea, but its time has come.

Before scoffs are directed at the suggestion of giving a diplomat yet another title, let’s think about this particular operating environment and what a dedicated ambassador should, and could, achieve.

The most striking differences between the domestic and international law enforcement environment is jurisdiction. Within Australia, our governments have sovereign rights to enforce the law. That’s indisputable. But our jurisdiction overseas is very limited, and we can only enforce our laws when the suspect is repatriated to Australia. So, in the main, we get what we want outside Australia through persuasion and cooperation.

This makes diplomacy a key instrument to achieving our overseas aims. Diplomats are well versed in establishing cooperative relationships, in coordinating Australian policy instruments and activities, and persuading others to take action. While all diplomats would be capable of achieving these goals in respect to countering organised crime, the specialised nature of this matter and its sensitivity makes the appointment of an envoy a reasonable proposition. We’ve done this before in a number of security-related areas, including counter-terrorism and people smuggling.

I don’t intend to defend each of Australia’s ‘Ambassador for…’ appointments or the concept of specialised ambassadors in general. But Australia’s appointment of ambassadors for CT and people smuggling have promoted cooperation, created an advocate for Australian ideas on these security challenges and—for the want of a better word—have added gravitas to the government’s messages. These specialised ambassadors can focus on priorities in a way that country ambassadors may not have to time or knowledge to do as effectively.

Creating greater cohesion within this space shouldn’t be difficult. There’s a strong relationship between terrorism, people smuggling and organised crime in general. The network of senior ministers and government officials involved in countering each also tends to overlap. So adding an additional responsibility to either the CT or people smuggling ambassadors would be an economical way to broaden our international approach to fighting organised crime. And, with resource constraints being what they are, that’s important.

One other reason to support this appointment can be found in the number of Australian agencies with a role in combating organised crime overseas. This ambassador would work closely with the Australian Federal Police’s overseas network, the Attorney General’s Department, the Australian Crime Commission and fellow ambassadors to ensure cohesion among our diplomatic responses and supporting initiatives, including aid projects. This ambassador would also provide a suitable link to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, which itself plays a major role in analysis and information sharing internationally. This ambassador might also be used to encourage the region’s major multilateral fora to promote efforts against organised crime on their agenda.

The ambassador’s first job would be to examine further offshore measures that Australia could take to increase our ability to fight organised crime. This examination could also think more broadly about how Australia could use aid to promote the rule of law in countries that need this kind of help, and develop assistance packages that will improve security sector capacity in the region. In effect, this appointment would coordinate Australia’s international law enforcement, aid and information gathering efforts to reduce the impact of organised crime here.

Attention should be given to intelligence sharing, police liaison, capacity building in neighbours, and suitable agreements that enhance bi-lateral and multilateral cooperation. Any of these measures will help, but they will take time and money to implement. Adding transnational crime to the portfolio of an existing ambassador would be a good start.

David Connery is a senior analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.