27 Nov, 2023

CITES SC77 Side Event Recap: Making the Case for a New Global Agreement

Is the existing international legal framework against wildlife trafficking fit for purpose? What role can the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) play, and what gaps remain to be filled?

These are just some of the questions the Global Initiative to End Wildlife Crime (EWC), CITES Parties and EWC partners sought to answer during their high-level side event on 6 November, hosted at the 77th session of the CITES Standing Committee. The event, titled “Strengthening the international legal framework against wildlife trafficking”, was co-hosted by EWC together with the governments of Malawi and Peru, the Born Free Foundation, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC).

The side event, which attracted about 100 in-person Standing Committee delegates, commenced with a warm welcome from Dr. Sue Lieberman, Vice President of International Policy at WCS, who served as the moderator. This was followed by John Scanlon AO, Chair of EWC, who set the stage by highlighting the gaps in the current international legal framework to prevent and combat wildlife trafficking. Mr. Scanlon raised a point that would later be reiterated by almost every other speaker: CITES is a trade-related Convention, which was never designed to deal with transnational, often organised, wildlife crime. A new global agreement is needed, taking the form of an additional Protocol to the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC).

During his statement, the Chair of EWC also reminded the audience of the adoption of resolution 31/1 by the UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice (CCPCJ), which invited Member States to share their views on the potential of an additional UNTOC Protocol against wildlife trafficking, and of the outcomes of that process. Throughout 2023, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) collected – and made publicly available – the views of 60 Member States and the European Union. According to an analysis conducted by EWC at the request of Angola and Gabon, about 75% of responding States expressed views that were either supportive of an additional Protocol or open to discuss the matter further. An updated report, containing additional Member States views, is expected later this year.

Expressions of support for a new international agreement against wildlife trafficking came from high-level representatives across different regions. H.E. Ms. Romy Tincopa, Deputy Permanent Representative of Peru to the UN in Geneva and H.E. Ms. Caroline Bwanali Muss, Permanent Representative of Malawi to the UN in Geneva, emphasised that their countries have long been at the forefront of efforts to combat wildlife trafficking and stressed the need for stronger international coordination and cooperation, including through an additional UNTOC Protocol.

In negotiating such a Protocol, amongst many other matters, State parties could finally develop and adopt a definition of wildlife trafficking, which would facilitate a convergence of national approaches, thereby enhancing international cooperation” said Ambassador Bwanali Muss of Malawi. “It is Malawi’s opinion that a new, well-thought instrument should be negotiated to prevent and combat wildlife trafficking” she concluded.

Peru was one of the original sponsors of CCPCJ resolution 31/1, which was also co-sponsored by Malawi. The President of Malawi, H.E. McCarthy Chakwera, called for an additional Protocol under the UNTOC to prevent and combat wildlife trafficking in February 2022.

From the European Commission’s point of view, Ms. Nina Miron, International Relations Officer, highlighted that introducing dissuasive sanctions for wildlife trafficking must be a priority to build a stronger legal framework and stressed the continued engagement of the EU in the matter. Ms. Miron also referred to the recently revised EU Action Plan against Wildlife Trafficking of November 2022, in which the European Union committed itself to promoting an additional Protocol to the UNTOC covering wildlife trafficking.

An alternative perspective was presented by the United States representative, Ms. Virginia Patton Prugh, Attorney Adviser at the Department of State, who underscored the need to make the most of existing tools – i.e., the UNTOC itself and the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) – before contemplating the adoption of a new Protocol. Ms. Prugh further encouraged other States to ensure that criminal offences related to wildlife trafficking are treated as “serious crimes” in their national legislation, and that wildlife trafficking is considered a predicate offence for money laundering.

A rebuttal to this perspective was presented by H.E. Ms. Paula Francisco Coelho, Secretary of State for Climate and Sustainable Development of Angola, who stressed that wildlife trafficking – one of the largest, most lucrative criminal activities in the world – must be addressed through an ad hoc instrument. “The UNTOC itself has a role to play in preventing and combating wildlife trafficking. But there is a reason why we negotiated and adopted the three existing protocols” the Secretary of States said.

The President of Angola,H.E. João Lourenço, called for an additional Protocol under the UNTOC to prevent and combat wildlife trafficking in September 2022.

Insightful perspectives were also provided by Ms. Lisa Hartevelt, from the Wildlife Justice Commission, a founding EWC International Champion, and Dr. Mark Jones, representing the Born Free Foundation, a founding Steering Group member of EWC. Among the many arguments in support of an additional UNTOC Protocol, Ms. Hartevelt highlighted that the adoption of a similar instrument would increase the systemic use of law enforcement tools, including specialised investigative techniques, intelligence analysis and financial investigations. Dr. Jones, on the other hand, shone a light on the millions of non-CITES-listed species that continue to be illegally traded, especially those that are nationally protected in their country of origin. A new protocol under the UNTOC, he reminded, would provide “an opportunity to ensure that nationally protected non-CITES listed species are also afforded much needed protection within the international legal framework.

The 90 minute side event came to a close with a brief Q&A session, followed by a powerful call to action by the session moderator Dr. Sue Lieberman. Wildlife crime is not a victimless crime” she said. “It is harming wildlife and wildlife populations and ecosystems, but it is also harming local communities. And it is also undermining sustainable development, and undermining governance” Dr. Lieberman continued. “An additional Protocol under the UNTOC will not magically solve all problems, but it will increase attention on the issue, and [it will lead to] the prioritisation of combating organised wildlife crime. I encourage all of you to talk to other Parties and [non-governmental] organisations about how we can all collaborate together to move forward on this important issue”, she concluded.

Co-authored by Alice Pasqualato and Meganne Natali