17 June 2013: Access to shipping companies’ data could help turn the tide against maritime smugglers

by Lawrence Dermody, Aaron Dunne and Hugh Griffiths

Every year nearly half a billion shipping containers are transported across the globe. These movements are the lifeblood of global trade, and yet secreted within a relatively small number of containers are illegal consignments of drugs, hazardous waste, counterfeit goods, dual-use items destined for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programmes, and small arms and light weapons that end up in the hands of terrorists or fuel civil wars.


Containerization has changed the face of smuggling and become many smugglers’ weapon of choice. It has also made some of the biggest commercial shipping lines into the smugglers’ unwitting partners in crime and left customs authorities struggling to keep up. But the information these shippers hold, if it were shared with enforcement authorities, could be a key element in the fight back against modern-day smuggling.

More containers, fewer risk indicators

All customs authorities are under pressure to do their vital work without disrupting legitimate trade. Given the volume container traffic coming through even medium-sized trading ports, they have to rely on whatever information they have on the containers’ origins and routing to identify the highest-risk containers—those that are worth intercepting and checking and, if found to contain consignments of concern, seizing.

Under pressure to cut costs and improve ‘efficiency’, customs authorities are pursuing policies of ‘data reduction’, ‘simplified procedures’ and ‘post-export declarations’. All of which reduce the amount of information available to customs at the time when they could effectively intervene. Furthermore, the risk-management techniques customs authorities use to identify high-risk shipments, which are based on that information, are often rudimentary—with inadequate automated targeting capabilities. This is true even when there is substantial information readily available—far more than is legally required for import, export, transit or trans-shipment.

Capacity and legal framework are also key

Identifying the highest-risk containers is just the first challenge. Once they are identified, there need to be laws in place that support enforcement action and customs authorities need to have the capacity to carry it out. And what are the thresholds for taking action? These issues are particularly acute in the case of transit and trans-shipment, where the container is only passing through a port and ultimately destined for another state.

SIPRI research suggests that information is not systematically collected, and therefore no, or limited, risk assessment takes place on the highest-risk container transport routes. Furthermore, in many states the legal basis for action is questionable, the capacity to act is limited, and the threshold for action is set too high.

Filling the information gap

An initial mapping of the information environment associated with the movement of shipping containers suggests that shipping companies hold the most comprehensive readily available information. United Nations expert groups and panels investigating recent sanctions breaches have found that shipping industry-generated documentation contained indications about the potential illicit nature of the cargo.

Providing customs and other enforcement authorities with real-time access to shipping companies’ databases and systems would significantly expand the amount of information available for risk assessment. It would also have substantial benefits for both governments and the shippers themselves. If the customs authorities get better at targeting the highest-risk consignments, they will use their resources more efficiently and minimize the disruption of legitimate trade.


For an exploration of the legal basis and enforcement challenges associated with transit and trans-shipment read The Proliferation Security Initiative: Legal Considerations and Operational Realities, SIPRI Policy Paper No. 36, by Aaron Dunne.

For insights into the transportation of destabilizing commodity flows read Maritime Transport and Destabilizing Commodity Flows, SIPRI Policy Paper No. 32, by Hugh Griffiths and Michael Jenks, and Air Transport and Destabilizing Commodity Flows, SIPRI Policy No. 24, by Hugh Griffiths and Mark Bromley.



Lawrence Dermody (Australia) is a Researcher with the SIPRI Countering Illicit Trafficking—Mechanism Assessment Projects (CIT-MAP).

Aaron Dunne (United Kingdom) is a Senior Researcher with SIPRI’s Dual-use and Arms Trade Control Programme.

Hugh Griffiths (United Kingdom) is Head of CIT-MAP.


Aaron Dunne will be delivering a presentation entitled ‘Information sharing in the context of transit and trans-shipment’ at the International Export Control Cooperation and Outreach Dialogue, Brussels, 18–19 June.

For information and interview requests contact David Prater (prater@sipri.org, +46 8 655 97 28).



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