Opportunities of the Obama visit
When President Obama visits with Caribbean leaders April 9 in Jamaica, broad trade and security issues should top his agenda. Trade growth in the Americas can drive jobs and development - a good thing for everyone. But security issues in one country can haunt its trading partners and damage not just their security but also international security - a very bad thing for everyone.
Jamaica seems to know this, which may be why President Obama accepted Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller's invitation to host his meeting with Caribbean states. Jamaica has been working with the World Customs Organization and others to revamp and improve its Authorised Economic Operator (AEO) programme, which certifies entities as following secure trade practices and affords them preferential trading privileges, such as fast-tracking shipments. Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and Mexico are the only states in the area with AEO programmes.
All states should want fully secure trade. No one wants terrorists using commercial shipments to infiltrate and destroy their ports. However, concern must go beyond this backyard interest. Indeed, all states have an international obligation - under treaties and binding UN resolutions such as 1540 (2004) - to stop the proliferation of chemical, nuclear and biological weapons and their means of delivery and to prevent related trafficking in money and materials.
However, some countries think that either: (a) they won't be a terrorist target, or (b) they don't have proliferation concerns. They make strategic controls a low priority.
Many countries have not yet enacted the necessary laws and regulations and have not instituted appropriate controls. Jamaica noted in its report to the United Nations that it is working on developing control lists. All countries need to make this a priority.
Even countries not directly targeted are affected after an attack. After the September 11 attacks, Caribbean tourism plummeted as people feared flying. The United States instituted new visa policies and implemented programmes to improve cargo security that affected foreign ports and shipping.
Proliferation can happen from and through almost any country. The United Arab Emirates was a trans-shipment hub for illicit material, including to UN-sanctioned Iran, until it instituted tighter controls. Then traffickers went through Malaysia - until it tightened controls. Where next?
With the expansion of the Panama Canal, ports throughout the Caribbean will expand their trans-shipments and face challenges, including increased illicit trafficking. Even countries without dangerous materials may have precursor materials or dual-use items that can be used for commercial purposes but could also be exported for weapons production; or they may have brokers, distributors, financiers operating on their territory, who may be involved in trading them.
It does not take much except political will for countries to effect laws and regulations controlling proliferation and related risks - be they trade or financial controls. Yes, implementing the controls does take more resources, but benefits can be many - especially if industry is engaged as an early ally:
n Increased efficiencies: Countries can use the advent of new controls to design better licensing and other procedures in collaboration with industry.
n More outreach for more (and more secure) exports: Government can reach out to inform businesses and individuals of export opportunities while they inform on safe trade practices and on other countries' already-existing extraterritorial controls.
n Increased competitiveness: Countries that don't have one already can start an AEO programme, supporting the enhanced trade strategy the region's customs directors adopted in 2013. Those that have them can seek Mutual Recognition Agreements to facilitate cross-border trade.
n Increased capacity: Better controls and training, with support from international bodies like the World Customs Organization and partner countries, can reduce illicit trafficking in everything from arms to drugs; customs revenues can increase with fewer diversions.
n More direct investment: Expanding international firms look to locate in countries with efficient, transparent processes and good security practices.
No country is perfect. The United States even cited itself as a money-laundering country in its 2015 report on narcotics control - and controlling real estate cash sales is one area where the United States lags versus some Caribbean states.
Those countries who don't embrace tight customs, border and other controls will be targets for traffickers. This has happened in drugs - as Colombia and Honduras cracked down on smugglers, the trafficking moved back to the Caribbean - and will happen in other areas.
Caribbean leaders should use the occasion of President Obama's visit to energise their legislative and executive bodies to prioritise the passage and implementation of strong controls - and should not hesitate to remind the president of what the United States needs to do, too.
- Debra Decker is a senior adviser for the Managing Across Boundaries Initiative at the Stimson Center, a non-profit and non-partisan international security think tank in Washington. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.