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The challenges of tackling international financial crime
with national law enforcement are legion, says
John Binns, a partner in the financial crime team at BCL
However, Binns discusses Interpol’s Operation Pangea –
which illustrates how financial crime can be
overcome – in the context of the global fight
against illicit medicines.
A world of problems
What can be done about the sale of illicit medicines? The
question illustrates a familiar challenge in the world of law
enforcement, in that a problem we as consumers and taxpayers can
see as straightforwardly needing tough and enduring action is made
harder to solve by two fundamental features of the landscape.
The first of these is legal complexity: even where the law
clearly provides remedies against conduct, the overlapping
provisions and procedures can be unhelpful. In the UK, for example,
the starting point for tackling many drug sales, depending on their
ingredients, may be controlled drugs offences. Counterfeit
medicines may also breach intellectual property laws, which can be
enforced either civilly or criminally. Some sales may defraud
consumers or offend against unfair trading laws. And, of course,
there are bespoke regimes for medicines (including natural and
homoeopathic remedies) and medical devices.
Picking up the pieces
A related issue is the plethora of options for public sector
enforcement, with local arrangements for policing and trading
standards investigations supported (though sometimes patchily) by
national ones for tackling online conduct and fraud. Specifically,
in the pharmaceutical world, the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare
products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) effectively leads both in routine
regulation of the sector and in criminal enforcement efforts when
things go badly wrong.
Local, national, and regional agencies must join forces
The MHRA has also taken an effective lead in this sector on
tackling the other fundamental problem of law enforcement, which is
national borders. As is increasingly obvious, the nature of
financial crime, of which illicit medicine sales are a prime
example, is global, which positively demands that local, national,
and regional agencies join forces to share information and
coordinate enforcement efforts.
A joined-up approach
We do not, and indeed may never, have such a thing as a global
police force. Instead, the role of Interpol is to help coordinate
the efforts of national and supranational law enforcement agencies.
Since 2006, the MHRA has worked with Interpol and various other
agencies, including the EU’s Europol, to tackle illicit
medicines and medical devices. This includes concerted days or
weeks of action against suspected offenders and their assets, which
are then publicly announced, most recently this summer. Under the
surface, the work to produce this undeniably impressive feat is
essentially about tackling those twin challenges of legal
complexity and working across national borders. Among other things,
this will necessarily involve consideration of data protection and
procedural rights for suspects and others involved.
Importantly, the agencies involved are not limited to
public-sector regulators and law enforcement. They also include
private companies, whose financial interests of course are engaged
in a big way, insofar as counterfeit medicines breach their
intellectual property rights. Indeed, more broadly, the profits and
reputation of the pharmaceutical sector generally are put at risk
by those who sell medicines in breach of the rules. Involving them,
therefore, makes sense on a principled basis, and undoubtedly helps
with resourcing the work of agencies that may not otherwise be
wallowing in money.
A global template?
So, is there anything in Operation Pangea that might point the
way for other efforts to tackle financial crime? Are there
other industries that might similarly be incentivised to cooperate
with and fund law enforcement in this way, other categories of
crime that require similar international coordination? Could, for
example, the financial sector be brought into international efforts
to combat frauds on COVID-19 support schemes or any offending that
involves crypto assets, or sanctions evasion?
We must think more creatively
Such comparisons make for interesting thought experiments, with
some instructive results. The immediate impact of bounce-back loans
is on lending banks, but the government guarantees have made them
squarely a public sector problem. Our response, so far, has been at
a national level, perhaps assuming such crimes do not cross borders
– but is this right? Are we doing enough to involve the
financial regulators, or to work internationally, on crypto- and
The problem of illicit medicines is not unique. But its features
have made it a fertile breeding ground for a form of
public-private, international cooperation that clearly has some
potential. If there is a broader lesson, it may be that we must
think more creatively, at the stage of devising national laws and
systems that are susceptible to abuse, about whether and how they
might also be susceptible to international coordination, and
gold-standard global enforcement.
Originally published by Open Access Government
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