Policing transnational and organised crime in the Pacific

In order to combat transnational crime in the Pacific, larger states must allow local partners to take the lead on development, Danielle Watson, Jose Sousa-Santos, and Loene M Howes write.

The Pacific Island region is characterised by vast geographic expanses, porous maritime borders, and relatively small populations scattered across multiple islands, and it is growing in attractiveness as a regional crime hub. For criminal enterprises, the relatively low risk of detection and the profitability of transnational and organised crime in this environment contributes to the Pacific’s appeal as both a thoroughfare and destination.

This situation raises critical and enduring questions about the response capacity of regional law enforcement. Questions of police response capacity become more acute in a crime landscape that has been re-shaped by the economic impact of COVID-19. The pandemic has proven to be less a disrupter of crime and more an enabler, as transnational organised crime syndicates and networks have demonstrated their agility and adaptability.

Can the region’s police meet this challenge?

As these authors wrote in the latest Development Bulletin, addressing police capacity to respond demands new and creative thinking. Efforts to countering transnational crime need to place Pacific-led approaches to capacity development at the heart of sustained, effective responses.

This approach is strongly affirmed and reinforced by the member countries of the Pacific Islands Forum in the signing of the Boe Declaration on Regional Security, which recognises transnational crime as one of the key challenges to the Pacific.

However, three core factors impact the ability of law enforcement and associated agencies to combat transnational and organised crime in the Pacific effectively: geography, weak or poor national legislation, and inadequate resourcing and capacity of police.

The complexity and agility of transnational and organised crime actors makes it notoriously difficult to detect, monitor, investigate and respond effectively to their illegal activities – even for well-resourced police organisations. In the Pacific, the challenges are exacerbated by the vast geographic expanses of ocean and the limited resources available for patrolling it.

The resourcing of law enforcement to combat transnational crime across the Pacific is stretched across multiple networks. Pacific police services or forces are affiliated with other internal and external bodies. They employ a multi-layered approach to transnational and organised crime and involve local, regional, and international partners across multiple agencies.

These agencies include locally staffed Transnational Crime Units (TCUs) in 20 Pacific Islands countries and territories (PICTs), the Transnational, Serious and Organised Crime (TSOC) Pacific Taskforce, the Pacific Transnational Crime Network (PTCN), the Pacific Transnational Crime Coordination Centre (PTCCC), and the Joint Inter-Agency Taskforce West (US Defense Indo Pacific Command).

These regional networks are supported by Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Further, the Pacific Islands Chiefs of Police partners with organisations such as Oceania Customs Organisation, the Pacific Immigration Development Community, the Pacific Islands Law Officers Network, the Asia-Pacific Group on Money Laundering, and the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency.

This proliferation of agencies suggests that the need for partnerships to combat transnational crime is not only recognised but that the necessary architecture is in place to support them. However, the existence of multiple agencies focused on the same or closely related issues may reflect a duplication of efforts and may strain already limited or scarce resources.

Cooperation and information sharing across agencies – and the region itself – remains a work in progress. Some smaller countries have reported a one-sided arrangement that favours larger and better resourced partners. Joint operations between national jurisdictions can become an exercise in selective intelligence sharing.

This imbalance may be justified by larger partners on the basis of information security concerns. In one recent case, a two-year investigation was carried out on a planned drug import to Australia from Papua New Guinea (PNG).

The investigation involved Queensland Police Service and the Australian Federal Police in collaboration with Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary. While the investigation resulted in the seizure of over 500 kilograms of cocaine in PNG and prosecutions of people involved, it is unclear how much intelligence-sharing took place in practice, given that information was only shared at the highest levels of the RPNGC to avoid compromising the operation.

Police capacity is varied across the region, with some countries more reliant than others on support from external partners. Longstanding Pacific police capacity development programs have primarily involved deployments of Australian and New Zealand police, who act in an advisory capacity, to deliver general and specialised education and training or to work alongside Pacific police to develop leadership skills.

However, conflicting priorities between aid donor and recipient countries present acute challenges for police organisations. These include a lack of flexibility to adapt to local needs and contexts, the imposition of external political priorities, and a lack of autonomy and control for local recipients. Police in PICTs must simultaneously navigate their organisations’ capacity development priorities and donor and political sensitivities.

What is the answer, then, in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges? To be most effective in combating transnational crime in the region, the challenging work of collaboration must continue. The related capacity development must be led by the Pacific and undertaken with a nuanced understanding of the Pacific context-specific issues.

Pacific-led capacity development should be culturally appropriate and recognise the differences within and between the Pacific’s law enforcement agencies. Achieving this in practice presents further challenges.

At the same time, police are not the sole solution to transnational crime challenges. To support communities and individuals affected by transnational crime, and to prevent or reduce its impacts, policymakers need to build holistic support systems within the health, education, and social service sectors.

While building capacity and providing more resources is important to combatting transnational and organised crime in the Pacific, broader collaboration and partnerships beyond policing and security are needed.

Danielle Watson, Jose Sousa-Santos, and Loene M Howes

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