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Transnational serious and organised crime: we need a white paper

Posted By on May 22, 2024 @ 06:00

Transnational serious and organised crime (TSOC) has profound economic, social, political and humanitarian costs for Australia and Australians, with impacts that are felt every day. It constitutes a formidable global challenge with multifaceted implications that transcend borders, communities and social-economic divides.

While Australia has had a National Strategy to Fight Transnational, Serious and Organised crime since 2018, it’s clear that our current policies, strategies, laws and law-enforcement capacity aren’t stopping the growth in TSOC costs. Australian federal, state and territory governments need to promote public policy discourse on how we ought to respond to this challenge. A good way to start would be to commission Australia’s first white paper on TSOC.

Economically, TSOC directly affects both developing and developed economies globally. Drug trafficking, human trafficking, cybercrime and money laundering inflict substantial financial costs on Australian citizens. Those losses manifest in direct economic damage, including reduced productivity, weakened market integrity and distorted competition. The World Economic Forum estimates that transnational crime and corruption siphon off up to 5 percent of global GDP.

In 2015 the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) estimated that serious and organised crime had cost Australia $36 billion in the 2013–14 financial year, including both crime and prevention and response costs. In 2022 the ACIC reported that in the 2020–21 financial year the direct and indirects costs could total up to $60.1 billion. Despite all the policies, legislation and enforcement, serious and organised crime costs have dramatically increased.

However, there’s been no effort to update our national strategy. And there’s little reason to doubt that the cost will be significantly higher the next time it’s measured. The numbers suggest that our current strategy is not preventing, mitigating or disrupting this threat.

The challenge is that serious and organised crime has become increasingly transnational in its linkages and costs over the past two decades.

TSOC fosters environments conducive to corruption, weakening governance structures and eroding public trust in institutions. Collusion between criminal networks and corrupt officials perpetuates a cycle of criminality, hindering the efficient functioning of markets and impeding socio-economic development. The costs associated with combating corruption, implementing robust regulatory frameworks and restoring institutional integrity further exacerbate the economic burden imposed by TSOC. Unfortunately, Australians are not just victims of crime; our demand for illicit commodities, the laundering of proceeds of crime from Australian criminal activity, and Australian criminals are also responsible for exacting these costs on developing nations. Australians might not see these kinds of costs daily, but our nation’s demand for illicit drugs plays a big part.

While the amount of money involved is vast, it’s important to remember that TSOC also has indelible impacts on communities, families and individuals that can’t be measured in dollar terms.

Drug trafficking engenders addiction, health crises and societal upheaval. The opioid epidemic in various regions exemplifies the devastating consequences of drug-related crime, including overdose deaths, strained healthcare systems and social disintegration. The violence associated with drug trafficking exacerbates community tensions, undermines public safety and fosters a climate of fear and insecurity.

Cybercrime has emerged as a pervasive threat with far-reaching social implications in the digital age. Cybercriminal activities such as hacking, identity theft, ransomware attacks and data breaches compromise individual privacy, erode trust in digital platforms and disrupt societal norms. The proliferation of cybercrime undermines economic stability through financial losses and business disruptions. It erodes public confidence in digital technologies and connectivity.

Politically, TSOC poses significant challenges to governance, stability and the rule of law. Corruption, facilitated by criminal enterprises, undermines democratic processes, erodes institutional legitimacy and perpetuates a culture of impunity. Weak governance structures, porous borders and inadequate law-enforcement capacities create fertile ground for transnational criminal networks to operate with relative impunity, evading justice and perpetuating criminal activities across jurisdictions.

Of concern is the possibility that some countries would seek to weaponise TSOC. A May 2024 report by the US Government’s Select Committee on the Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Community Party, titled The CCP’s role in the fentanyl crisis [1], alleges that China has used illicit-drug warfare as an asymmetric tactic to cause social and economic costs.

The environmental cost of TSOC is also substantial, encompassing illegal activities such as wildlife trafficking, illegal logging and environmental pollution. Wildlife trafficking threatens biodiversity, contributes to species extinction and undermines conservation efforts. Illegal logging and fishing deplete natural resources, degrade ecosystems and exacerbate environmental degradation, with far-reaching ecological consequences.

Addressing the real cost of TSOC requires a multifaceted approach that integrates legal, law enforcement, diplomatic, social and economic measures. Enhanced international cooperation, information-sharing and capacity-building efforts are paramount to disrupt transnational criminal networks, dismantle illicit markets and strengthen regulatory frameworks. Investing in crime-prevention strategies, victim-support services and community resilience programs is essential to mitigate TSOC’s social and humanitarian impacts. Moreover, fostering a culture of transparency, accountability and integrity within institutions is crucial to combat corruption, strengthen governance structures and uphold the rule of law. International conventions, treaties and agreements are pivotal in coordinating responses, harmonising legal frameworks and facilitating mutual assistance among countries in combating TSOC. Getting all of that effort synchronised and coordinated requires new thinking.

Given the multidisciplinary nature of this challenge and its complexity, a TSOC white paper could play a crucial role in developing a whole-of-nation approach. At the very least, it would provide an opportunity to improve public policy discourse. Moreover, the white paper process would assist with integrating multidisciplinary insights, allowing stakeholders to understand the problem holistically and explore diverse solutions. Without new thinking, our current policies will not prevent TSOC costs from rising.

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[1] The CCP’s role in the fentanyl crisis: https://selectcommitteeontheccp.house.gov/sites/evo-subsites/selectcommitteeontheccp.house.gov/files/evo-media-document/4.16%20The%20CCP

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