Where there’s a will, there's a way: How the WCO builds capacity to implement strategic trade controlsi

It is often said that where there is a will there’s a way, but the reverse can also be true: improving Customs administrations’ capacity to understand and implement regulations might influence their willingness to make commitments. By developing and disseminating methods and tools to make strategic trade controls effective and efficient, the WCO may actually increase the chances that Customs administrations are willing to build control capacity in this domain. This article looks at the WCO approach to capacity building in the domain of strategic trade controls and how that has been adapted in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and restrictions on international travel.

By James McColm, Adam Vas, Peter Heine and Debika Pal, WCO

All countries abide by a number of international non-proliferation commitments, including treaties, sanctions, and informal multilateral arrangements, all of which entail certain responsibilities to prevent the dissemination of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and related technology to unauthorized state and non-state organizations or people. Amongst these international instruments is the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540 (UNSCR 1540) adopted in 2004 after revelations about the Abdul Qadeer Khan proliferation ring, and in the context of the post-9/11 security environment. The Resolution has come the farthest in defining a common list of what measures states must take in relation to strategic trade controls and calls for their full implementation by 2021.

As such, all countries should, therefore, have a strategic trade control (STC) system in place, which aims to manage the transfer of sensitive materials, technology or equipment that might be used in weapons systems. Some of those goods have both civil and military applications and are called dual-use goods. National laws and regulations should determine the universe of goods a country considers strategic (generally including both listed goods and a catch-all provision allowing for governmental control over unlisted goods under certain circumstances), define a licensing regime and associated offences, and establish penalties for violations. In a well-functioning STC system, traders apply for permits or licences as required, and proactively comply with trade control obligations and commerce proceeds. However, compliance with the law may not be perfect, and enforcement agencies must detect, deter, and ideally prevent non-compliance.

When it comes to enforcing STCs, Customs is generally, although not always, the main agency involved at the border. Depending on the situation of a country, determining whether traders are compliant is a challenging task, especially for dual-use goods. Many controlled items are dual-use industrial and scientific equipment or material defined by technical specifications, for which the details are to be found in accompanying technical documents rather than in Customs clearance and shipping documentation or on detector screens. Difficulties are particularly acute in countries that are transit or transhipment points for this trade and often have very limited or very short notice access to shipping information.

STCE at the WCO

At the 31st Session of the WCO Enforcement Committee, in March 2012, several administrations took the floor to outline the challenges they faced in relation to enforcing STCs, and called upon the WCO Secretariat to do more to help them. As a response, a team of experts was set up under a Strategic Trade Control Enforcement (STCE) Project with the objective to develop guidance material and deliver training. An Implementation Guideii  and a comprehensive training curriculum were developed, training sessions were organized and, in 2014, an enforcement operation, called Operation Cosmo, was conducted.
The project was soon turned into a long-term programme. More training was conducted and when Operation Cosmo 2 was run in 2018 it became the largest operation ever conducted by the WCO Secretariat with 114 countries and many international organizations participating, such as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, the UN Security Council’s 1540 Committee, and INTERPOL.

The WCO has been able to implement the STCE Programme due the financial support it has received from two Global Partnership member; US Department of States Export Control and Related Border Security Program has been a support of WCO STCE activities since 2013, and in 2019 their support was supplemented by that of Global Affairs Canada.  

WCO capacity building tools

According to the UN, capacity building can be defined as: “...the process by which individuals, groups, organizations, and communities increase their abilities to: (1) perform core functions, solve problems, define and achieve objectives; and (2) understand and deal with their development needs in a broad context and in a sustainable manner.”iii It is something these organizations do themselves, not something done for them. Certainly, they may seek and obtain assistance, but capacity building must be undertaken by the organization seeking to improve capacity.

The training curriculum developed by the WCO for administrations wishing to build their capacity contains high-level briefings for senior managers on how to strengthen national STCE efforts and modules for operational personnel, covering chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) material and related dual-use material and equipment. It also includes training modules on applying risk management and post clearance audit in the context of STCE.

The curriculum is designed to be modular and adaptable to the capacity building needs of an administration and to the type of trade flows it deals with. A STCE Maturity Model helps identify specific gaps in a Customs administration’s national STCE system and to suggest actionable next steps. The STCE maturity level also guides the selection of suitable training modules from the curriculum. For example, training for administrations with a strong STCE foundation can focus on upskilling operational personnel, but training for administrations without established procedures would focus first on senior-level policy makers and decision makers, the aim being that they develop a plan for the establishment and implementation of an STC regime within their Customs administration.  

When assessing capacity building needs, it is also necessary to understand how a country could be involved in illicit trade in strategic goods given its trade flows. While it can be argued that all countries are likely to hold some WMD-related material, some manufacture or hold WMD and related materials, some manufacture related materials, some hold stocks of related materials, and some have substantial throughput of cargo or can act as a diversion point, and are, therefore, expected to take appropriate and effective measures to prevent their territory being used to transship WMD and related materials.

To provide a better view of the situation and originally support Operation Cosmo, a Strategic Trade Atlasiv was developed by the United States Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory and the European Union’s Joint Research Centre. It provides a snapshot of a country’s principal imports, exports, and trading partners for goods classified under Harmonized Systemv (HS) Headings associated with strategic goods. The WCO uses this information to tailor training and focus on goods most relevant to each country. Customs administrations can also use it to guide company selection for outreach and audit as well as for risk profile development for targeting and risk management. 

STCE Expert Trainers

The WCO Secretariat does not have the staff or resources to conduct training in all countries requesting its assistance. Instead, it relies on Accredited Customs Expert Trainers. The recruitment process is as follows: the Secretariat sends a letter to WCO members inviting them to nominate personnel matching a very specific profile to attend an accreditation workshop at the end of which participants will be told whether they can take part in a capacity building mission with an expert to finalize their accreditation.

Asked to comment on the expert recruitment process of the STCE programme, Vesna Vrachar, an accredited STCE trainer from Serbian Customs, explained that “The process is very complex and requires extensive and detailed preparation as well as hard work. The STCE curriculum is very detailed and the practical professional literature which trainers have to assimilate is comprehensive.” She also highlighted how training others actually strengthened her understanding of the issue: “During the STCE training, we try to install a dialogue with participants. Not only do they learn from us, we learn a lot from them as well. There is a real opportunity to transfer knowledge and exchange experiences in the implementation of controls.”

Another expert who is finalizing her accreditation, Leila Barrahmoun from Morocco Customs, also pointed out how much she learned during the process, saying that she realized that “a good trainer must not only be qualified, but also open-minded, patient and reassuring.”

The WCO now has well over 150 accredited and pre-accredited STCE Expert Trainers from over 50 countries. Training can currently be delivered in five languages, English, French, Russian, Spanish and Portuguese, and will be available in Arabic from mid 2021.

The WCO Secretariat aims at ensuring gender balance in the recruitment of trainers. During its latest train-the-trainer STCE workshop, women represented more than half of the officers selected to continue on to the accreditation process. In April 2020, the balance of accredited WCO trainers was 2 males to 1 female, but over the following three years the Secretariat hopes to move towards a gender-balanced pool of trainers. 

Enforcement operations

Operations serve multiple purposes. Among other things, they represent, for all participating agencies, the true test of individual and collective capacities.

Operation Cosmo 1 mainly served the WCO Secretariat’s aim to raise awareness among Customs administrations on their obligations when it comes to STCs, and to reveal operational challenges and capacity building needs. Indeed, information collected during the operation informed STCE training and capacity building efforts that followed. Last but not least, it helped set the stage for Operation Cosmo 2, conducted in 2018.

Cosmo 2, on the other hand, enabled the Secretariat and participating administrations to, once again, test their capacity to identify illegal shipments and to get used to sharing information on illicit or suspicious shipments using STRATComm, the WCO’s secure communications platform for cases involving strategic goods.

Following the operation, many countries highlighted the value of the courses they had received while preparing for the operation, especially those on audit-based controls, risk management and the analysis of strategic goods. Many also expressed their appreciation for the ease of communication with Customs authorities in other countries through the use of STRATComm.

Likewise, countries also reported continuing challenges such as their need to improve risk management of strategic goods, their lack of national STC legislation, their lack of quick and reliable technical “reachback,” and the need to keep training new personnel on STCs. Cosmo 2 provided the WCO with information and understanding on what countries need to move from classroom-based theory to practical fieldwork, and provided the WCO as well as participating countries with a path-forward for future work.

These same issues were also highlighted during Cosmo ASEAN, involving 10 countries in South East Asia and conducted in 2020. The report from that operation highlighted areas of improvement which the WCO addressed, due to the Covid pandemic, through virtual national training webinars.  

Harmonized System (HS)

One of the challenges that companies and Customs face when implementing STCs, and not the smallest, is control lists that generally do not take into account Customs tariff categories. Conversely, with few exceptions like nuclear reactors or some nuclear material, Customs tariffs generally do not take into account control list definitions. As part of the overall STCE effort, the WCO Secretariat asked the Organization’s HS Committee to introduce a set of amendments to the HS Nomenclature related to dual-use items which were difficult to classify at the HS six-digit level or which were classified under residual subheadings along with many common goods. All proposed amendments were approved by the WCO Council in June 2019 and are included in the HS 2022 version of the Nomenclature.

Measuring the Program Performance

The clandestine nature of counter proliferation networks and complex nature of trade in dual use goods mean that measure success or impact is often difficult, as success cannot be measured purely in relation to seizures or prosecutions, and needs to encompass the prevention aspect, including administrative penalties, and evidence of exports or transshipments prevented and referrals to licensing authorities. The WCO also sees to measure the capacity developed and the following data can be taken into account when trying to assess the impact of the programme:

  • Operation Cosmo 2 gathered 114 countries, which at the time made it the most successful WCO global operation in terms of participation.
  • A global network of STCE trainers has been established to support the Secretariat’s activities.
  • Many administrations started training their staff without the assistance of the Secretariat, and some national Customs schools or academies have adopted the STCE training material developed by the WCO.
  • Increasingly the WCO training curriculum and implementation guide are used by other organizations training law enforcement officials, including the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), and the export control outreach programmes of the European Union and the United States.
  • The initiative has already led some countries to embark on policy enhancements, with some introducing dedicated Counter-Proliferation Units, setting up Counter-Proliferation Targeting Cells, and running regular STCE national training programmes and STCE-focused enforcement operations

Let’s share two countries’ experience, namely the United Kingdom and Pakistan.

In the United Kingdom, following the accreditation of officers from the UK Border Force’s Heathrow Counter-Proliferation Team (CPT) and from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), a nationwide STC upskilling campaign was launched. Over the course of several training events, UK trainers reached frontline Border Force officers from various ports and airports, as well as officers from HMRC’s National Clearance Hub who set and monitor profiles for strategic goods. In addition to employing the WCO guidance and training material, they also made use of HMRC’s Risk and Intelligence Service’s assessments on risks inherent to each of the ports, focusing training on the strategic commodities exported or transiting from these ports. Training also detailed local detention and seizure processes, and the compelling national and international drivers requiring effective strategic trade control.

Efforts to improve STCE resulted in substantial systemic reforms in some countries, as the case of Pakistan well illustrates. In June 2016, a Pakistani officer attended a WCO accreditation workshop. Within a span of two years, more officers were accredited and the administration had established an impressive STCE training programme. Future officers were systematically trained and the STCE curriculum embedded into different training courses meant for the capacity building of mid-career and entry-level officers both for managerial and frontline streams. National workshops were also held, with and without the assistance of the Secretariat, and gathered not only Customs managers and frontline officers, but also importers and Customs brokers. By the end of 2018, 83 Customs managers, 299 frontline officers, and 1,232 importers and Customs brokers had received training.

Thanks to senior management engagement in Pakistan, on 4 September 2018, a National Counter-Proliferation Unit (NCPU) was created at Karachi and a Counter-Proliferation Training Cell at the national training facility. The unit was tasked, in close alignment with WCO STCE guidelines, to establish counter-proliferation teams at all the field offices which clear exports, to update the national risk management system, to support the Directorate General of Post Clearance Audit in selecting and conducting audits of companies engaged in the export of strategic goods, and to coordinate capacity building activities in the area of STCE.

Counter-proliferation teams have already been established at the two major ports in Karachi, which together clear more than 85% of the country’s exports. The NCPU is currently analysing Pakistan’s national database with the Strategic Trade Atlas to update their national risk management system, helping counter-proliferation teams in conducting physical examinations, providing “reachback” support to field offices, and functioning as Customs’ national focal point for the national licensing authority, namely the Strategic Export Control Division (SECDIV) at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

COVID-19 Delivery

The COVID-19 Pandemic and the subsequent travel restrictions forced the WCO to re-address how it delivered its STCE training and capacity building activities. Whilst the technology existed to deliver training via virtual platforms, what wasn’t present was familiarity with the online platforms by the trainers or from the recipients. In addition, the WCO STCE Programme team wanted to ensure that the training experience was as interactive as possible and encourage an active two way learning experience in which the trainees fully participated. Rather that rushing in to online Learning, the WCO researched virtual delivery techniques and amended the curriculum incorporating quizzes, polls and discussion points and filtering the content to the key points, with modules fixed at around 40-50 minutes with each session being around 3 hours maximum.

The WCO has utilized its accredited expert network to insure a wide range of voices and experiences, which has been facilitated by the virtual platforms. This has allowed these virtual trainings to be more gender balanced, and more engaging for the trainees thanks to the inclusion of these different voices. Whilst the initial training was delivered in English, the WCO has now expanded and delivered events in Portuguese, Russian and Spanish. The online platform also allows more trainees to attend, with regional workshops for Southern Africa and the Caribbean attracting around 200 attendees to each webinar.  In addition, the WCO used the virtual platform to host topic focused webinars, on subjects such as STCE targeting. Engaging with STCE targeting experts from CBSA (Canada), Border Force and HMRC (UK), Ukrainian and Spanish Customs helped the STCE Programme to develop interactive remote learning exercises in multiple languages.  

Feedback from attendees has been very positive, and whilst the platform and time constraints mean that it is not possible to deliver the same content to audiences, the new method of delivery opens up new opportunities to tailor the content for particular audiences, and the ability to connect virtually means that it ispossible to reach at the same time more Customs officers in a particular country and more countries than would be possible through physical trainings.    


The value of the WCO STCE Programme has been recognized by the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) and the UNSCR 1540 Group of Experts. It has become a global standard for Customs training in the field of STCE and the more countries adopt it, the more effective the global non-proliferation system will be.

The success of the programme is partly due to its flexibility: the training curriculum can be adapted to different levels of STCE system maturity, and the commodity focus can be tailored to national priorities and trade flows. In addition, the accredited expert network provides WCO with a flexible resource that can adapted at short notice to different methods of delivery and enables WCO to deliver its training material in multiple languages across the world.  

The training also focuses on decision makers responsible for system design and resource allocation, not just implementers. More importantly, as STCE is not a traditional priority for Customs administrations, senior policy-level commitment and political will is  It is often said that where there’s a will, there’s a way, but the reverse can also be true. By providing a way to build capacity to enforce STCs, the WCO may actually increase the chances that Customs administrations are willing to try.