Regional Red Lights: Cooperation and Community against Human Trafficking

When considering the makers and breakers of security communities, non-traditional issues such as trafficking-in-persons (TIP) do not immediately spring to mind.

Owing to its low-intensity humanitarian impact, it is difficult to imagine TIP threatening longstanding peaceful relations and expectations of peaceful change amongst states. Examining non-traditional security challenges and mechanisms established to address them, however, presents valuable opportunities for scholars looking to understand the many layers of cooperative practice that constitute security communities. The effectiveness of coordinated transnational responses to TIP can point to the strength, or weakness, of cooperative habits amongst and between member states, and practitioners at various levels. Unlike inter-state security challenges, effectively combatting TIP requires a more fundamental role for a range of lower-level and non-state/civil society practitioners. Examining organizational structures established and agential attitudes towards cooperation relating to TIP can serve as a litmus test, pointing to the effectiveness of security community-building institutions in promoting habits of cooperation and providing joined-up responses to transnational threats, while elucidating how agents shape these structures and facilitate or inhibit the development of cooperative practices. Better understanding these issues will likely explicate opportunities for building closer ties on transnational issues, as well as means for developing cooperative networks and, more generally, bolstering the architectures of security communities.

A case in point is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) response to TIP.

Although it would be premature to describe ASEAN as a fully formed security community, scholars of ASEAN are increasingly willing to describe the arrangements of states as a security community, albeit nascent, developmentalist, or illiberal. Indeed, by its own declaration, ASEAN is aspiring to further cultivate a sense of regional political, economic, security, and cultural community.

Towards this end, ASEAN have implemented a number of measures to encourage cooperation in response to TIP, particularly amongst judicial and law enforcement practitioners. These include: official declarations; regional working groups; treaties; greater networking and information sharing; attempts to harmonize national policies and legal systems; professional exchange programs; institutional capacity building; and the circulation of handbooks for practitioners explaining regional mechanisms for cooperation.

By ASEAN’s own assessment, however, efforts are resulting in very few instances of cross-border cooperation. The only formal cooperation mechanism provided by ASEAN, the Heads of Specialist Trafficking Units (HSU) Process, resulted in just 474 instances of cross-border communications, 142 victim rescues, and 36 arrests between January 2006 and June 2008. Practitioners cited ‘unfamiliarity with the use and application of legal cooperation tools; unsuitability of some tools for TIP-related offences; lack of awareness of trafficking within relevant units/ authorities; and differences in laws, standards and priorities between countries as major barriers to cooperation.

Assessment of informal cooperation found that ‘in most transnational cases reviewed, no effort was made by criminal justice officials to seek formal or informal cooperation.’ When cooperation did occur, it generally only led to repatriation of victims and no pursuit of the culprits, resulting in a situation ‘where those who are most culpable in exploitation are least likely to be apprehended, prosecuted and punished.’

It is not just cooperative relationships between state actors that are lacking. Relationships between NGOs and practitioners/regional coordinators in combatting TIP are generally poor or non-existent, to the extent that some NGOs don’t notify police of trafficking cases they encounter, citing fears that victims would be worse off in the hands of the authorities. This is indicative of a broader lack of cooperation between civil society organizations and state bodies within South East Asia (SEA).

In short, at least in the case of TIP, cooperation has not become the norm in the region, and habits of cooperation amongst practitioners across borders are not developing at the rate ASEAN officials would hope.

The underlying practices, attitudes, and institutional arrangements that facilitate and inhibit cooperation in response to TIP within security communities require further investigation. Such investigation is imperative to identify areas where cooperation is lacking, and to find ways to promote cooperative practices – not least in order to minimize the significant costs of human trafficking. Besides this, however, examining regional responses to TIP can highlight whether law enforcement and judicial practitioners are inclined to seek cooperation, and whether the organizational backdrop in which they operate facilitates cooperation effectively. Such investigation would contribute significantly to the growing literature on ASEAN as a security community, as well as more multi-level practice-orientated understandings of security communities generally.

George May is a Research Associate on the ICCS project ‘The Political Effects of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles on Conflict and Cooperation Within and Between States‘, specifically investigating terrorism, counter-terrorism and drone use in Yemen.  He is also undertaking an MA in International Relations (Security) at the University of Birmingham.

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