Victims of smuggling may be finally heard in 2014 (Inquirer)

Looks like 2014 is the year that will usher in a new dawn for smuggling victims: they will finally be heard by government officials.

Recent events have been encouraging.

First, Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima said in an official meeting of agriculture and industry leaders that senior officials of both the Department of Finance (DOF) and the Bureau of Customs (BOC) will have to participate actively in the Anti-Smuggling and Import-Export Documentation Committee of the National Competitiveness Council (NCC). The NCC reports to the President.

In this public-private sector body, where the Departments of Finance, Agriculture, Trade and Industry, Justice, and BOC are represented, there is one private sector leader each from the agriculture and industry sector.

These private sector leaders are themselves the victims of smuggling, and effectively represent other victims. They provide first-hand smuggling information.

With the high level government representation advocated by Purisima, the victims will now be heard.

This will be in stark contrast to the past, when the victims’ anti-smuggling suggestions were just brought to the BOC.

This is reminiscent of a Mona Lisa song: “Many dreams have been brought to your doorstep. They just lie there, and they die there.”

Second, we have already seen some of these recommendations acted upon. Since the February 10-11, 2012, AF2025 tripartite conference involving the executive, legislative, and private sectors, practically nothing has been done on three anti-smuggling recommendations.

These measures were likewise identified by the NCC Anti-smuggling and Import-Export Documentation Committee as key priority actions that the BOC should undertake.

What was not seen in the last two years and nine months got quick and favorable responses in only the last 10 days.

We had one-on-one meetings with the newly installed Customs Commissioner and his three recently appointed Deputy Commissioners. We found them very supportive of deep and meaningful reforms. Among these reforms were the same three priority actions the NCC advocates. They are the automatic BOC transmittal of the Inward Foreign Manifest (IFM) to DA and DTI so that smuggled products can be apprehended upon arrival; access to input-output information of customs bonded warehouses so that smuggling leakages can be detected; and private-sector qualified participation in the BOC’s ICARE (the unit that accredits legitimate importers) so that fly-by-night smuggling operators can be weeded out.

Third, what has never been done on rampant rice smuggling was accomplished in the last three months: 1,500 containers of smuggled rice were seized and apprehended!

However, there is a danger that all these may soon be released because of court injunctions promulgated in Davao last Dec. 13 and in Manila last Dec. 20. These two injunctions compel BOC to release identified confiscated rice shipments. The basis for these decisions sounds logical: how can these shipments be considered smuggled when rice import restrictions, which form the basis of the smuggling charge, have already expired?

Question. The critical question is whether these restrictions have actually expired or not. While it is true that import restrictions were planned to be lifted by the World Trade Organization as early as June 30, 2012, it is likewise true that a country can negotiate the exact timing of the import restriction lifting. There are voluminous documents to show that the timing negotiations are still taking place, and that the restrictions are therefore still valid.

In my commentary two weeks ago, I quoted verbatim the arguments forwarded by the National Food Authority (NFA) lawyer who, by design or by accident, neglected to make this important point.

The release of the smuggled rice as a result of faulty legal argumentation in both the Davao and Manila court injunctions may well set a precedent for the release, not only of the 1,500 seized rice shipments in the last three months, but also all the rice shipments seized since June 30, 2012. This will make a mockery of the anti-smuggling campaign. It will also significantly harm our rice farmers, one of our largest and poorest sectors.

President Noynoy Aquino said “Ikaw ang boss ko.” For a long time, the smuggling victims did not feel this. Despite their suggestions being brought to the BOC’s doorstep, they just lay there, and they died there.

With the new BOC management, this has taken a welcome reversal. The BOC must continue this trend, especially in this landmark rice smuggling case. BOC must put forward a strong case for reconsideration so that the smuggled rice is not released. It will then be clear that 2014 will be a milestone year when the smuggling victims will finally be heard.

By: Ernesto M. Ordoñez (The author is chair of Agriwatch, former Secretary for Presidential Flagship Programs and Projects, and former Undersecretary for Agriculture, Trade and Industry. He also serves as the Chair of the Anti-Smuggling and Import-Export Documentation Committee of the National Competitiveness Council.)

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