By Janez Potočnik
Expert Conference on the EU Approach against Wildilfe Trafficking
Brussels, 10 April 2014
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is a great pleasure and honour for me to welcome you here today to our expert conference on wildlife trafficking.
You are all familiar with the dimension of the problem. So, there is no need for me to repeat the dramatic poaching figures that are confronting us.
But, I do want to recall the heavy costs that wildlife trafficking imposes on people, the environment and the economy. Wildlife trafficking threatens biodiversity, it damages the potential for human development and it seriously undermines peace, security and good governance. Not surprisingly, it is one of the most lucrative international criminal activities, and it is often closely linked to the financing of conflicts.
It is important to be aware of the scale of the problem, because if we want to be serious about combatting wildlife crime, our efforts will need to measure up to it. Looking at the list of participants, I think we can safely say that we have already achieved one of our main objectives for this conference: Reaching out beyond the circle of environmental experts.
Today we have amongst us experts from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Development Cooperation, Justice, Home Affairs and Environment from almost all the EU Member States. We have with us environmental inspectors, police officers, customs officials, prosecutors, judges, representatives of key international organisations, and delegates from around twenty different NGOs, who fight on the front line every day. And we also have the pleasure of welcoming representatives from key countries in Africa, Asia and the Americas who are here to share their perspective and experiences. On the EU Institutions side, we are here to listen and learn from you.
I would also like to welcome and thank Mr Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy from the European Parliament for joining us. The European Parliament has been a strong supporter of our efforts, and the Resolution adopted in December on Wildlife Trafficking contains a lot of valuable ideas on how to take our work forward.
Over the past few months major capitals have organised high level conferences on wildlife trafficking, Paris, Gaborone and most recently London. At these conferences, Heads of State or Government and Ministers have made strong political commitments in favour of the fight against wildlife trafficking, placing it at the top of the international political agenda. The EU as a whole signed up to the London Declaration on the illegal wildlife trade. These commitments are very important, as they show the strong political will to fight this problem.
Our task now is to translate them into concrete actions and results. The EU is keen to play its part and work with our international partners to make real progress.
As you might be aware in early February, the Commission adopted a proposal on the EU approach against wildlife trafficking, and launched a wide stakeholder consultation. Our objective is to strengthen enforcement within the EU and better support our international partners. We have received valuable input from individuals as much as from organisations and enforcement practitioners. Today's conference concludes our consultation process.
We will analyse all replies in detail of course. What we can see already as a general line is the wish of stakeholders for more to be done to strengthen enforcement in the EU, for more effective action at international level and for both Member States and the EU to play an important role in this. The EU Action Plan that the European Parliament has called for seems for most stakeholders the best way forward to give strategic guidance to our action and to keep the issue high on the political agenda.
In today's conference we will start by looking at the situation within the EU. How can we ensure that the EU stops being a major market and transit point for illegal wildlife products? How can we fight against organised wildlife crime more effectively?
Looking just at some of the reports received over the last months, I read about the uncovering of a bird smuggling ring in the EU; about stolen rhino horns in Ireland, about highly endangered eels from Germany being seized at the airport in Beijing, and about a prison sentence for ivory smuggling in Spain. Unfortunately, we know well that what we read is only the tip of the iceberg.
My colleague, Cecilia Malmström, who could not be here today with us, asked me to address the issue of law enforcement.
As clearly confirmed by the input we received from the public consultation, law enforcement is a weak point that needs to be addressed. It is exactly the potential economic benefit combined with the weak enforcement system in place today that attracts organised criminal groups. The fact is that wildlife trafficking can be a very lucrative business with a comparative low risk of detection and lower sanctions than, for example, drug trafficking or trafficking in human beings.
The EU law enforcement agency EUROPOL highlighted, in its 2013 Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment, environmental crime as a specific emerging threat requiring intensified monitoring, within which trafficking in waste and in endangered species are the most prominent.
A specific threat assessment report issued in October last year by EUROPOL, shows that trafficking of endangered species attracts highly specialised organised criminal groups, which service a niche “market”. At the same time, there is some evidence that traditional organised crime groups are expanding their illicit activities in environmental crime in general.
These groups are usually dominated by persons from the EU. They often cooperate with other criminal networks to launder their profits and arrange the sale of their contraband. Like for most crime areas - and environmental crime is no exception - the internet plays a key role in facilitating communication and exchanges. These groups use corruption, money laundering and forged documents to facilitate their activities. Some groups even use sophisticated technology and sell their contraband at very high prices, creating profits of up to 6 to 10 times their initial investment.
The potential impact of trafficking in endangered species is not limited to environment. It results in significant losses in State revenues and enrichment of organised criminal groups. Linked with corruption it even undermines state institutions and the rule of law.
It seems to me that there is room for more efforts in the day-to-day operational cooperation amongst law enforcement authorities to detect and prosecute environmental offences. Within the EU we need a debate with Member States and other stakeholders to see how, and how far, environmental crime can be made a possible new priority in the EU-wide fight against serious and organised crime. The new EU Internal Security Fund, which will include environmental crime as one of the priorities for funding for Member States' law enforcement authorities starting already this year, will support future initiatives.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Global criminal networks are undermining what we try to achieve with our development support for conservation and good governance, and are putting at risk peace and security. If we use our diplomacy in a more strategic way, if we coordinate our development support efforts better, then we can really make a difference globally. For this, close cooperation with all our partners, in source and market countries, is crucial, and that's why I am particularly pleased to welcome colleagues from Kenya, Congo, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the United States, China and Vietnam.
From the EU side, the Commission will use the input from the consultation and today's conference to work further on specific proposals to deal with wildlife trafficking.
Let me conclude by thanking you all once again for coming to Brussels today and for showing your commitment to fight against wildlife trafficking. Only together we can ensure that the high level declarations of the last months will be more than just words, we will turn them into action.
Thank you for your attention.