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"Divergent Paths to Regulating the Illicit Economies: How Informality Impacts International Cooperation"

My dissertation project which will become a book manuscript titled "Divergent Paths to Regulating the Illicit Economies: How Informality Impacts International Cooperation," I address the question: Why do international institutions vary in their inclusion of enforcement mechanisms? I look at international efforts regulating illicit commodities such as firearms trafficking and drug trafficking, which vary greatly in their inclusion of implementation review mechanisms. Considering the fact that illicit flows are clandestine and require active enforcement, and some states are willing to shirk responsibilities in light of the benefits in the legal market, many practitioners in this field have highlighted the importance of implementation review mechanisms. However, international agreements which regulate the same or similar commodities include varying implementation review mechanisms. This is puzzling as current literature on institutional design cannot explain divergence in the same issue area. 

I argue that looking at the actual process of negotiations are crucial to understand the choices made for institutional design. I draw from 6 months of fieldwork in UN Vienna and a one week archival trip to the Organization of the American States in Washington. During this fieldwork, I have conducted interviews with diplomats and participant observations by observing the ongoing negotiations of the United Nations Cybercrime Ad Hoc Committee, and the United Nations Conference of the State Parties to the UNTOC. I also collected relevant documents through archival work, and an embedded observation of the UN work, by working as an intern to the department that manages the Firearms Protocol.

I find that the norms shared between delegates in each of these different negotiations matter significantly in impacting the outcome of international agreements, more specifically, institutional design. Main cases for cross-case comparison, and within case comparison include: treaties related to illicit firearms trafficking, and treaties related to drug trafficking. 

Related fieldwork: 

2023 December - 2023 December: Washington, USA. Organization of the American States (OAS) arcvhies.
2022 October – 2023 April: Vienna, Austria. Intern at the United Nations office for Drugs and Crime. (Headquarter of the UNODC)

2022 March – 2022 May: South Korea, Seoul and Daejeon, Interview with Diplomats, Prosecutors, and Academics (The UNODC regional office is in this region)

Dissertation Chapter (brief summary) 

Chapter 1: Introduction

Chapter 2: Literature Review / Theory / Research Design

This chapter situates the argument within the literature, specifically discussing institutional design, and summarizes the theoretical argument of this book. First, the chapter offers a detailed conceptualization of the different available enforcement mechanisms. Next, the chapter introduces a theory of informal consensus. It examines how consensus requirements embedded within negotiation venues may lead to different outcomes of enforcement mechanisms within international treaties. Here, I lay out the different pathways involving the presence and absence of informal consensus norms. Based on these theoretical expectations, I outline the broader research design, involving process-tracing and case comparisons.

Chapter 3: The Negotiation of the CIFTA Convention

This chapter traces the negotiation history of the Inter-American Convention against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives, and Other Related Materials (short for CIFTA convention). This convention was the very first multilateral agreement to curb the illicit trafficking of firearms in light of continued organized criminal activity. This convention also includes a moderate level of implementation review mechanism, called the consultative committee. This chapter traces the history and the negotiation process of how the CIFTA convention was established, paying specific attention to the agency of delegates and the norms present during the negotiations. I draw from archival materials from the OAS library, as well as interviews with experts who have participated in the negotiation of this treaty. 

Chapter 4: The Negotiation of the Firearms Protocol

This chapter traces the negotiation history of the UN Firearms Protocol. Shortly after the CIFTA convention was ratified, Canada, with the sponsorship of the US, had submitted a draft treaty to the United Nations with similar functions as the CIFTA convention to be applied more globally. Interestingly, the Firearms Protocol, despite many concerns from some experts who were taking part in the negotiation, was unable to include any type of implementation review mechanisms. Why was this the case? I argue that organizational norms during the negotiation, which the delegates have termed the Vienna spirit, prevented the delegates from moving forwards with clauses that were considered politically salient. As a result, the implementation review mechanisms were discarded from the initial negotiation and establishment of the Firearms Protocol.  

Chapter 5: The Negotiation of the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons

If breadth vs. depth is the predominant argument for why a more global treaty is unable to include implementation review mechanisms, chapter 5 and chapter 6 shows otherwise. The negotiation of the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons coincided with the negotiation time-frame of the Firearms protocol, where both were established in 2001. While the UN PoA deals with legal trade of small arms and light weapons, the agreement also includes aspects that target the illicit trafficking of small arms and light weapons, which overlap in its jurisdiction with the Firearms protocol. As such, I trace the politics behind the negotiation of the UN PoA and examine the negotiation processes. 

Chapter 6: The Drug Conventions and the International Narcotics Control Board

This chapter examines the development of strong implementation review mechanisms of the UN Drug Treaties, which are the 1961 Single Convention, 1972 Psychotropic Substances Convention, and the 1988 Drug Trafficking Convention. The overarching convention created in 1961 included strong implementation review mechanisms, with the 1988 drug trafficking regime slightly weakening its review mechanisms after the headquarters moved from New York to Vienna. This chapter traces the negotiation history of these treaty negotiations and implements a within-case comparison to see how changes in the venue impacted treaty making. This serves as a shadow case for the broader argument on how informality, even within the same organization, diverges and affects institutional design.

Chapter 7: Effective Implementation Regarding Criminalization

How can we define effectiveness in a regime complex with overlapping roles yet varied enforcement? In this chapter, I differentiate between compliance-related effectiveness and the broader challenge of combating global illicit trafficking. Given the hidden nature of illegal activities and global criminalization, implementation review mechanisms are vital for enhancing the regulation of illegal goods. There are differing views on effectiveness between field practitioners and global negotiators. The effectiveness of enforcement mechanisms and upholding agreement principles are distinct. While some literature highlights a gap between compliance and true effectiveness, suggesting potentially low legal standards, I argue for a clearer definition of effectiveness. I then offer an overview of the system's effectiveness in addressing illicit firearms trafficking.

Chapter 8: Conclusion

Future Book Project 

As I transition my dissertation into a book in the upcoming years, I aim to broaden my research scope to encompass all international frameworks overseeing the illegal trafficking of goods and people. This includes areas such as wildlife trafficking (flora and fauna trafficking), money laundering, human trafficking, and cybercrime.


Through the book, I aspire to offer an exhaustive insight into the global management of illicit economies, detailing the architecture of these international bodies, their role in monitoring unlawful trade of diverse commodities and individuals, and the varying degrees of enforcement they exhibit.

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