PONI Debates the Issues Blog

Balancing Trade and International Security

The World Customs Organization (WCO) serves as the sole international customs organization, providing leadership in re-orienting the global customs community to the valuable contributions it can make in national security. Customs authorities manage the movement of goods, money, and people, and play a key role in the prevention and detection of smuggling restricted goods. As the customs community single multilateral/international organization, the WCO provides leadership to focus on issues related to international security through its Security Programme. The WCO has implemented commodity-based projects such as Programme Global Shield and the Strategic Trade Control Enforcement (STCE) Project, that have already helped in preventing the smuggling of chemicals, and training for customs officials and law enforcement. In December 2015, the WCO took further steps to empower customs officials by issuing a resolution that will, over time, limit the flow of illicit goods across borders.

The WCO has refocused its mission in many ways to better balance their role in the international security mission space, by facilitating legitimate trade, while thwarting illicit transfers. In 2010, the WCO partnered with INTERPOL and United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime to launch Programme Global Shield, an initiative to prevent the smuggling and illicit diversion of precursor chemicals that could be used to build improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The program’s success led to it developing from a 6-month temporary project to a long-term endeavor. As of April 2013, there have been sixty-two seizures of IEDs, explosives and precursors, and 56 arrests.

In response to the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1540 to prevent illicit trafficking and smuggling of WMD and related items, WCO implemented the STCE Project. Established in 2013 as a 6-month program, the project facilitates comprehensive STCE training curriculum for customs, coordinates global STC law enforcement cooperation, and organizes awareness raising seminars. The WCO drafted a comprehensive STCE implementation guide to assist members in the development and execution of their STCE processes and procedures, and to provide guidance for the training curriculum. The project is now on the track to becoming a permanent program.

To officially account for this refocus in mission from tariff collection to trade security, the WCO has made policy shifts, as well. To underscore the importance of customs officials in mitigating violent extremism through border security, the WCO’s Policy Commission issued a resolution in December 2015, empowering customs authorities to promote security in the functions of front-line officers, and to include security in their operations and strategic plans. The commission’s statement highlights the role that customs authorities play in border security, many times acting as the first defense against extremists and the suppression of illicit trade. In the resolution, the Commission seeks to strengthen the roles of customs officials by endorsing a closer relationship between different customs authorities at varying levels with other law enforcement. They also advocate for a closer partnership between intergovernmental organizations, and encourage customs officials to remain updated on WCO’s Security Programme Training, which focuses on strengthening the ability of customs administrations to addresses issues of national and international security threats.

Overall, the Policy Commission’s resolution, along with the success of WCO activities, such as Programme Global Shield and the STCE Project, has been integral in the support of increased training of customs officials, and is the right step in mitigating contemporary cross-border security threats. Hopefully, countries will fully implement the WCO’s recommendations in their standard operations, and train and empower their customs officials to carry them out in their day-to-day activities. Although it might take some time to see the impact of this resolution, it is a logical and deliberate move to enhance the security of the front lines of the flow of goods between borders.


Tracey-Ann Wellington is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Energy National Nuclear Security Administration (DOE/NNSA) supporting the Office of Nuclear Controls. In this role she conducts export control reviews and analyzes proliferation concerns of dual use goods related to nuclear, chemical/biological weapons, and missile-related technologies. She also provides outreach support on domestic and international nonproliferation activities through trainings and workshops. Tracey received her PhD in Energy Science and Engineering from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in 2015, and holds an undergraduate degree in Mathematical Physics from Randolph College, and a master’s degree in materials science and engineering from Texas A&M University. Tracey conducted her dissertation research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where she developed novel methods to detect the presence of weapons-grade plutonium in order to mitigate proliferation risks.

The views expressed above are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Project on Nuclear Issues, the U.S. government or any of its agencies.

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The views expressed above are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Center for Strategic and International Studies or the Project on Nuclear Issues. The content of this web site does not constitute an endorsement by or opinion of the Department of Defense or any sponsor of the Project on Nuclear Issues.