ASEAN member countries have been fostering cooperation in combating transnational crime for more than two decades. Initially, ASEAN was concerned with the abuse of narcotics and trafficking in illegal drugs. However, with the expansion and diversification of transnational crime to include terrorism, arms smuggling, money laundering, illegal migration, and piracy, and the highly organised nature of such crimes, ASEAN has stepped up and expanded its co-operative efforts against these crimes.

ASEAN Decisions on Combating Transnational Crime

The ASEAN Heads of Government adopted the Vision 2020 document in 1997, which sets out a broad vision for ASEAN in the year 2020. Among the goals forecasted was the creation of a drug-free Southeast Asia and a region of agreed rules of behaviour and co-operative measures to deal problems that can only be met on a regional scale including transnational crime.

At the 6th ASEAN Summit in 1998, the ASEAN Heads of Government reiterated their calls for strengthening and promoting regional linkages among ASEAN institutional mechanisms in fighting drug abuse and trafficking, and in intensifying individual and collective efforts to address transnational crime. They adopted the Hanoi Plan of Action (HPA), the first in a series of action plans to realise the ASEAN Vision 2020 which, among others, called for a strengthened regional capacity to address transnational crime.

At the 31st ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) in July 1998 in Manila, the ASEAN Foreign Ministers reiterated the need for enhancing regional efforts against transnational crime. They signed the Joint Declaration for a Drug-Free ASEAN affirming ASEAN’s commitment to eradicate the production, processing, traffic and use of illicit drugs in Southeast Asia by the year 2020. At the recently concluded 32nd AMM in Singapore, the ASEAN Foreign Ministers stressed the urgent need to strengthen the regional capacity to combat transnational crime and to implement drug control programmes with the assistance of the international community.

ASEAN Bodies Combating Transnational Crime

A number of ASEAN bodies are involved, directly or indirectly, in formulating policies and initiating activities against transnational crime. These include the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Transnational Crime, ASEAN Finance Ministers Meeting (AFMM), ASEAN Chiefs of National Police (ASEANAPOL) and ASEAN Senior Officials on Drugs Matters (ASOD).

ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Transnational Crime

The ASEAN Ministers of Interior/Home Affairs at their inaugural meeting on 20 December 1997 adopted the ASEAN Declaration on Transnational Crime, which underscored ASEAN’s resolve to adopt a comprehensive approach to fight transnational crime through greater regional collaboration and by forging international cooperation.

The 2nd ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Transnational Crime (AMMTC) in June 1999 adopted the ASEAN Plan of Action to Combat Transnational Crime. The Plan established mechanisms and activities to extend ASEAN member countries’ efforts to combat transnational crime from the national and bi-lateral levels to the regional dimension, and strengthen regional commitment and capacity to undertake the expanded task. The Plan will put in place a cohesive regional strategy to fight transnational crime and will encompass information exchange, cooperation in legal and law enforcement matters, institutional capacity building, training and extra-regional cooperation as key programme activities. These regional efforts will complement and contribute to the bilateral efforts undertaken by ASEAN Member countries.

A work programme will be urgently developed to expeditiously implement the Plan and requested the assistance of the Dialogue Partners and relevant international organisations to assist in this initiative. The first working group meeting will be held soon at the ASEAN Secretariat. These regional efforts will complement and contribute to bilateral efforts undertaken by ASEAN Member countries to tackle transnational crime.

The establishment of the ASEAN Centre for Combating Transnational Crime (ACTC) has also been agreed, in principle. A working group meeting is to be held this week in Manila to prepare a full report on the establishment of the ACTC.

The ACTC is another regional initiative of ASEAN against transnational crime which is envisioned to promote data resource sharing, assist in the implementation of programme activities outlined in the proposed action plan, and be a repository of information on national legislation, regulatory measures and jurisprudence of individual member countries. It is also envisaged that the ACTC will have research capabilities to conduct in-depth analysis of transnational crime activities to recommend appropriate regional strategies to fight these felonious activities. With the establishment of the Centre, ASEAN efforts in combating trafficking of women and children will be further intensified.

Recognising that national and regional efforts alone will not suffice in effectively dealing with transnational crime, the AMMTC has agreed to explore ways of developing closer cooperation with the Dialogue Partners, regional organisations and international organisations, including the United Nations and its specialised agencies, Colombo Plan Bureau and the ICPO-INTERPOL. In an effort to promote greater cooperation, informal consultations between the senior officials and the interested parties have also been encouraged. Both the AMMTC and the AMM have called upon the Dialogue Partners to provide assistance in developing the work programme to implement the Plan of Action and in undertaking activities to fight the various forms of transnational crime.

ASEAN member countries are also expected to play a role in the drafting of the UN Convention on Transnational Organised Crime with a view of promoting regional efforts during the negotiations.

ASEAN Finance Ministers Meeting

At their first meeting, on 1 March 1997 in Thailand, the ASEAN Finance Ministers signed the ASEAN Agreement on Customs. The agreement, which apart from enhancing ASEAN cooperation in customs activities and expediting the early realisation of AFTA, aims to strengthen cooperation in combating trafficking in narcotics and psychotropic substances, and will facilitate joint efforts in anti-smuggling and customs control.

ASEAN Chiefs of National Police (ASEANAPOL)

The ASEANAPOL deals with the preventive, enforcement and operational aspects of cooperation against transnational crime. ASEANAPOL has been actively involved in sharing of knowledge and expertise on policing, enforcement, law, criminal justice, and transnational and international crimes. It has established three ad-hoc commissions dealing with drug trafficking, arms smuggling, counterfeiting, economic and financial crimes, credit card fraud, extradition and arrangements for handing over of criminal offenders and fugitives. It has also taken initiatives to combat new forms of transnational crime, such as fraudulent travel documents, phantom ship frauds, product counterfeiting and piracy.

ASEAN Senior Officials on Drugs Matters (ASOD)

ASOD was officially established in 1984 and initiatives on drugs are based on the ASEAN Plan of Action on Drug Abuse Control that was adopted at the 17th ASOD Meeting in October 1994. The Action Plan covers four priority areas: preventive drug education, treatment and rehabilitation, enforcement, and research.

In preventive education and information, various workshops on drug education for teachers and curriculum designers and comparative researches on preventive education have been conducted. Co-operative activities in law enforcement include the exchange of law enforcement officers/personnel, the conduct of training programmes with the assistance of international agencies and the sharing of information concerning trends, modus operandi and routes of narcotics trafficking. ASEAN members have conducted regular exchanges of personnel involved in treatment and rehabilitation at the operational level.

These programmes were complemented by the efforts of the four training centres based in ASEAN member countries. These are the ASEAN Training Centre for Narcotics Law Enforcement (Bangkok), the ASEAN Training Centre for Preventive Drug Education (Manila), the ASEAN Training Centre for Treatment and Rehabilitation (Kuala Lumpur), and the ASEAN Training Centre for the Detection of Drugs in Body Fluids (Singapore).

Cooperation with Dialogue Partners

ASEAN has been undertaking development cooperation activities in the prevention and rehabilitation aspects of drug, empowering of women and addressing violence against women and the commercial sexual exploitation of children.

With the expansion of transnational crime and its pervasive nature compounded by the adverse social effects of the financial crisis, ASEAN will have to intensify its efforts against transnational crime. The on-going efforts to develop action plans, work programmes and projects activities to deal with specific transnational crimes will help to suppress the rise of such in the region. ASEAN will have to strengthen its cooperation with its Dialogue Partners who have been playing significant roles in the international arena on combating transnational crime.

Future Directions

First, there is an urgent need for ASEAN to step up cooperation among its member countries and with the international community in combating transnational crime. Specifically, ASEAN will have to develop the work programme to implement appropriate activities to implement the Plan of Action to Combat Transnational Crime to effectively tackle, at the regional and international scales, the menace of transnational crime.

Second, in pursuing its efforts ASEAN should, wherever possible, involve the dialogue partners, relevant international and regional organisations. The technical expertise and development assistance of the dialogue partners and organisations will be important for ASEAN to effectively tackle transnational crime.

Third, greater synergy is needed between law and interior/home ministry officials of ASEAN so that appropriate legal instruments could be developed to fight newly emerging crimes while strengthening existing ones. The ASEAN Law Ministers at their meeting in 1996 agreed that the ASEAN Senior Law Officials Meeting (ASLOM) should continue to examine the role of law in the context of facilitating greater ASEAN cooperation. Thus legal cooperation in ASEAN should keep pace with developments in combating transnational crime to effectively support ASEAN’s fight in eradicating the crimes.

Fourth, ASEAN should continue to promote legal education and research, exchange of legal materials and judicial cooperation given the diversity of legal systems in the ASEAN member countries with a view to harmonise legal matters of mutual interest, including studying the possibility for regional cooperation on extradition as called for by the ASEAN Heads of Government at their 1st Informal Summit in 1996. On exchange of legal information, ASEAN has established the ASEAN Legal Information Network (LINKS) to facilitate the dissemination of information pertaining to the laws of the ASEAN countries.

Finally, in promoting legal education greater mutual recognition of legal qualifications within ASEAN should be considered which would allow legal professionals to practise in any of the ASEAN member countries after a comprehensive orientation course. Twining between universities in legal education can be the first step. As ASEAN integrates and liberalises its economic activities particularly in the areas of trade, investment and services, there would be a greater mobility of capital and labour, which would necessitate a more regional approach towards law in ASEAN.