Remarks of CITES Secretary-General Ivonne Higuero for WCO IT/TI Conference

Updated on 20 August 2020

14 June 2019, Baku, Azerbaijan

Good afternoon, Excellencies, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen,

I am honoured to have been invited by the Secretary General of the World Customs Organization to give a keynote address at the IT Conference. My sincere apologies for not being there with you this week but I had prior commitments that made it difficult to travel to Baku. I am sure you have been enjoying the great Azerbaijani hospitality they are well known for, and which I am very sorry to have missed.

Firstly, I will say a few words about the Convention, known in its short form as CITES, for those who may not be familiar with what it does. It is a legally binding multilateral environmental agreement with 183 Parties.  Its main objective is to regulate international trade so that it does not threaten the survival of the flora and fauna species in the wild. CITES Parties ensure, through their decisions and resolutions, that trade is sustainable, legal and traceable.

It may surprise you that of the 36,000 species regulated under CITES, 97% can be legally traded for commercial purposes. Something else that may surprise you is that CITES supports a multibillion US dollar trade; for example, the trade in Queen conch, an edible mollusk, is estimated at 60 million dollar per year; pythons, often used for leather, are a $1 billion/year industry; and bigleaf mahogany is a $33 million dollar a year business.

CITES is implemented through the issuance and exchange of permits and certificates between exporting and importing countries. This is the backbone of the convention: CITES Parties are currently issuing over 1 million permits per year worldwide. These permits document the legality and sustainability of the trade transaction. Each permit is issued by an appointed national CITES Management Authority, for example a Ministry of Agriculture, Wildlife or Fisheries and each of these permits must be controlled by Customs during export, re-export or import.

So why is CITES important for customs authorities? Customs has many important functions for the effective implementation of CITES, and these can be generally grouped into two types of roles:

  • Customs firstly facilitate legitimate CITES trade and provide the management authorities with the actual quantities that are traded under its permits. This information is highly important to analyse trade trends and determine future sustainability measures.
  • Secondly, Customs, in controlling all exports, re-exports and imports, assess the risk that a particular shipment may constitute illegal trade in a CITES listed species. Thus, Customs plays a significant role in detecting and addressing illegal trade.   

Now that countries have committed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, it is important to highlight that the work of Customs Authorities directly contributes to the conservation of valuable natural resources and supports the sustainable development of countries. Customs Authorities support the protection of endangered species and the livelihoods of the people that depend on these species, whilst at the same time making an integral contribution to the fight against illegal trade in wildlife.

Illegal trade in wildlife is a global concern. It poses a serious risk to the conservation of wild species and undermines conservation efforts and the legal wildlife trade. This is reflected by Resolutions, Declarations and Statements adopted in many different forums.  Some examples amongst many are:

  • the June 2014 declaration on illegal wildlife trade adopted by the Customs Co-Operation Council;
  • the first ever UN General Assembly resolution on ‘Tackling Illicit Trafficking in Wildlife’ adopted in July 2015
  • the September 2017 UN General Assembly Resolution on Tackling illicit trafficking in wildlife and
  • the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) specifically addressing tackling illegal trafficking in wildlife through specific Targets under Goal 15. 

Illegal trade in wildlife is a very lucrative transnational crime often conducted by highly organized criminal groups. It is thought to be the 4th largest trans-border crime and the value of this crime is estimated at between 5 to 20 billion USD (excluding marine and timber species).

No one country, region or agency can combat illegal trade in wildlife alone, and there is strong recognition of the need for increased collaboration and coordination to combat it. Customs and CITES authorities should do this by fully drawing upon the opportunities that modern information and communication technologies offer.

It is clear that ICT and electronic permit exchange between CITES Management Authorities and Customs can make a significant contribution for detecting illegal trade and facilitate legal trade in CITES-listed species. I, as part of my vision as new Secretary-General, wish for the Secretariat to assist Parties to move more quickly towards the use of modern information and communication technologies to facilitate the implementation of the Convention. We are, therefore, focusing on three main areas:

1st:  We have initiated our support to CITES Management Authorities to automate the permit process and to exchange electronic permits with Customs. For example,

  • CITES provides a standard for electronic CITES permits in an electronic format which is based on the Data Model of the World Customs Organization.
  • Together with the Automated System for Customs Data (ASYCUDA) programme of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (or UNCTAD), we have developed a low cost and powerful off-the-shelf software solution for issuance, control and exchange of CITES permits. We are currently working with UNCTAD on the next generation of this system which will be cloud based.    This system will be virtually maintenance free for Parties and would enable all CITES management authorities to exchange electronic CITES permits directly with their national Customs Administrations.

2nd:   As an important first step, we are engaging in pilot projects with a key group of CITES Parties on cross border exchange of electronic permits. It is expected that the first systems will move from trial to production mode later this year. The long-term objective is to achieve end-to-end control in the CITES supply chain, leveraging on the international legal framework that CITES provides and the power of modern information and communication technology.

And 3rd:  We are also looking into further opportunities that new technologies may provide. We are, for example, working with researchers to evaluate the potential of Blockchain technology for secure and trusted exchange of CITES permits. At the upcoming 18th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES, we will organise a side event in which Management Authorities from Southeast Asian countries will share ideas for cross-border exchange of CITES permits using Blockchain technology and executable contracts.

As more Parties gain access to electronic permit systems, the future is bright in terms of our collaboration with customs authorities. We aim to implement or strengthen the electronic Risk Management systems used in the border control process to improve control of CITES trade. In this regard, a joint workshop between national Customs administrations, CITES Management Authorities, the WCO and other international organizations was organised in Gibraltar, United Kingdom in 2018. The objective was to assess current best practices in using risk management for control of CITES trade, and as an outcome, the CITES Standing Committee proposed a set of important activities to strengthen collaboration between management authorities and Customs for CITES Risk Management in the Customs clearance process. 

This includes the organization of an international workshop on Customs procedures for improved control of trade in wildlife jointly with WCO and national Customs administrations. It also includes working with WCO and other relevant partners on electronic information exchange and the implementation of efficient risk-based procedures.  

We are eagerly looking forward to strengthening further our collaboration with Customs administrations and the WCO. This will assist Parties to take advantage of the potential of modern information and communication technologies for safer and more sustainable trade in CITES listed species.

I close by exhorting you to work together with us not only on the important mission to combat illegal trade in wildlife but also to protect the important cultural and biological value that wildlife has in your countries and its role to provide sustainable income for your people.

Thank you and my best wishes for a successful conclusion of the Conference.