Perhaps because I have demonstrated far too much of an unhealthy interest in the challenge of tackling CITES cybercrime, because I appear a bit of a nerd, or perhaps because I was just too vocal during the CITES E-Commerce working group last year, I was pleased to be elected to chair the CITES E-Commerce working group envisaged at the 14th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP14, The Hague, 2007) and necessitated by the Vancouver workshop. This article reflects on the need for the Vancouver workshop, its deliberations and outcomes, and, most challenging of all, what we still have to do to make a difference.
In the face of the threat of the sale of CITES products disappearing not underground but into the unclear and difficult-to-see alternative dimension of cyberspace, by becoming increasingly offered for sale and traded over the Internet, Parties at CoP14 stepped up and grasped the challenge by sectors responsible for this development. Those sectors include various and nefarious forms of illegal activities where the criminals have increasingly turned to using the Internet to advertise their goods and groom potential purchasers. We are all aware of the difficulties that law enforcement organisations have faced in trying to identify, track and catch criminals that use this medium to advertise their wares and to keep in touch with their networks. It was, therefore, a necessary and a brave move for the CITES community to take. By doing so, the CITES community is acknowledging that it needs to focus its attention on this medium much more than it has done previously in the face of a very steep and difficult path that needs to be traversed to first understand and then tackle the issue.
I was thus pleased to attend what was in effect the second step on that path, the CITES E-Commerce Workshop held in Vancouver in February 2009. Not only was the hospitality of our hosts, this month’s guardians of the Olympic tradition, was outstanding, but the hard work they had put into ensuring that the right people were present and the facilities for their open dialogue were available, meant that the discussions were stimulating, informative, challenging and, above all, focussed.
Readers will have seen the report of the outcomes of that workshop in document SC58 Doc. 22 , presented at the 58th meeting of the Standing Committee (SC58, Geneva, July 2009) for endorsement. Workshop participants agreed at the outset that it was only realistic initially to try to tackle Internet services, and the sites where potentially illegal CITES products were being offered for sale and purchased. When speaking about cybercrime, there are also forums and email mechanisms which may well be being equally used and abused. However, we have to be pragmatic and take steps to address one medium at a time and to do so publicly in a way that raises awareness of the threat of illegal sales, and specifically the potential for purchasers unwittingly becoming involved in such illegal and damaging practices.
It was thought very beneficial that participants with different viewpoints and experiences were present. In that way, the workshop aired all the important issues that needed to be considered, even if it was not able to achieve a consensus on the way forward on all points and had to leave some issues unresolved for consideration at some point in the future. Like the overall challenge, getting consensus is a step by step process!
Those unresolved issues were discussed at SC58 last year and it was clear that the Standing Committee also recognized both the need to move forward in tackling the issue, and to do so with challenging objectives and time-scales, but also the need to be pragmatic and realistic about what can be done immediately and what may need to be addressed in a longer time-frame.
The recommendations made at SC58 are presented in document CoP15 Doc. 32 , and I hope that this stimulates a broad and deep discussion and agreement on both the need and the path for CITES to follow. It would of course be wrong of me to pre-judge those discussions, and as the Chair of the working group, I will listen to the views of the Parties and faithfully take those forward as efficiently as possible. However, I do think that it is important for all those with an interest in making this medium a safe and legal one for CITES trade to take place to take a pragmatic, realistic and achievable view of how best to move along the path ahead of us. Equally, I believe that this was the view of the workshop participants and the Standing Committee. It is much better to chip away at a challenge and make real but slow differences, than to try and tackle everything at once and fail to achieve anything.
It will come as no surprise that I believe that the recommendations contained in document CoP15 Doc. 32 are considered positively and adopted. As a participant in the Vancouver Workshop and as a member of the Standing Committee, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland fully supports the recommendations being put forward. No doubt that at the upcoming CoP15 (Doha, 2010), Parties, including potentially the United Kingdom, will want to amend and improve the draft decisions and the proposed amendments to Resolution Conf. 11.3 (Rev. CoP14). What is nevertheless clear to me is that there is still a long way to go before we have a sufficiently strong toolkit of experience and measures that Parties can draw upon to improve our confidence that the sale of specimens of CITES-listed species on the Internet can be fully relied upon to be legal, and that prosecutions can successfully occur whenever this is not the case.
I trust that Parties and other participants at CoP15 will reflect on the urgency of moving forward on many of the recommendations proposed in relation to Resolution Conf. 11.3 (Rev. CoP14) and send a strong signal to Parties to take whatever actions are best suited to their circumstances. As ever, there will be no one-size-fits-all solution and we should guard against taking such an approach for fear that, by so doing, we will fail to enable actions in those countries where the circumstances vary from the norm, and in turn lose their experiences in tackling Internet trade and ensure that it is legal.
Of particular importance when considering what is pragmatic, realistic and achievable, is the need to acknowledge what CITES can and cannot do. The Convention’s purpose is to ensure that where trade occurs it does so sustainably. Its purpose is not to curtail such trade where it is not necessary. We are all aware of how sustainable trade can provide benefits to source countries, local communities, consumer countries, the global economy and indeed the species’ security itself, where undertaken in compliance with CITES rules. The establishment of a toolkit of measures can and should provide the opportunities for countries to contribute to and use whatever suits their circumstances best. The direction that we take to establish the toolkit and the tools that we put into it should not make it more difficult to conduct trade legally and sustainably, as to do so would risk alienating some sectors and driving both legal and illegal trade underground.
I believe that after the COP has concluded and the dust has settled, the United Kingdom will look at the CoP15 outcomes and consider how it should offer guidance on the use of the Internet when advertising and purchasing species at risk. At the same time as hoping that such guidance will be achieved with the assistance and agreement of all stakeholders, I hope that we will be given a good launch pad for considering and trialling such guidance. I hope that our developing and using such guidance will assist the E-Commerce Working Group, the Secretariat and, eventually, the wider CITES community by providing useful experience on which to build. I also hope that other stakeholders will also share with us their experiences to ensure that we have as broad a range of tools to use to make the maximum progress in tackling the threat of illegal e-commerce as quickly as possible.
Chair, Working Group on E-Commerce of Specimens of CITES-Listed Species
Head of CITES and International Species Policy team
Zone 1/07C, TempleQuay House
2 The Square, Bristol, BS1 6EB
Tel: +44 (0)117 372 8384
Fax: +44 (0)117 372 8373