ICAO and the World Customs Organization


The history of the World Customs Organization (WCO) began on 23 August 1947 when the thirteen European Governments represented in the Committee for European Economic Cooperation agreed to set up a Study Group. This Group examined the possibility of establishing one or more inter-European Customs Unions based on the principles of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). In 1948, the Study Group set up two committees - an Economic Committee and a Customs Committee. The Economic Committee was the predecessor of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Customs Committee became the Customs Cooperation Council (CCC). In 1952, the Convention formally establishing the CCC came into force. On 26 January 1953, the CCC’s inaugural session took place with the participation of 17 founding members. The CCC membership subsequently expanded to cover all regions of the globe. In 1994, the organization adopted its current name, the World Customs Organization (WCO). In 2019, WCO members are responsible for customs controls in 182 countries representing more than 98 per cent of all international trade.


The World Customs Organization develops international standards, fosters cooperation and builds capacity to facilitate legitimate trade, to secure a fair revenue collection and to protect society, providing leadership, guidance and support to Customs administrations.


WCO’s emblem

Designed in 1992 and adopted in 1993, the WCO logo (on a white background) symbolizes the countries of the world cradled and brought together by the arms of the Customs Cooperation Council. The WCO Secretariat, which is based in Brussels, Belgium, consists of more than 125 staffers from around the world and runs the WCO’s day-to-day operations under the leadership of a Secretary General. The WCO’s governing body – the Council – relies on the competence and skills of a Secretariat and a range of technical and advisory committees to accomplish its mission. 


Instituted by the World Customs Organization (WCO), International Customs Day (ICD) is held on 26 January each year, commemorating the day in 1953 when the inaugural session of the Customs Cooperation Council (CCC) was held in Brussels, Belgium. The ICD recognizes the role of custom officials and agencies in maintaining border security and focuses on the working conditions and challenges that customs officers face in their jobs.


The WCO’s main partners of the United Nations System are: the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee (UNCTC), the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the Universal Postal Union (UPU), the World Health Organization (WHO), etc. Many other International Organizations (such as INTERPOL, the International Trade Centre (ITC), the World Trade Organization (WTO), etc.), Regional Intergovernmental Organizations (such as the European Union, etc.), and Business Organizations (such as the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), the International Federation of Freight Forwarders Associations (FIATA), the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the International Air Cargo Association (TIACA), etc.) are also working with the WCO.


The ever-increasing air travel provides the potential for the economy to grow, for example, as a result of tourism, business, meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions. At the same time, it presents challenges to border control authorities, including customs, in terms of ensuring passenger facilitation, safety, security and compliance with relevant laws and regulations. Border control authorities face growing security and other risks. These include transnational crimes, such as the movement of sanctioned individuals and foreign terrorist fighters, illicit financial flows, smuggling of contraband items, the movement of restricted and prohibited goods, and the miss-declaration of high-value items in passenger baggage. Border control agencies often use extensive and layered safety and security checks as a way of delivering their mandate to manage the security risks associated with air transport and to cope with its challenges. These checks are inconvenient, unpleasant and stressful for passengers who may have to stand in long queues to comply with all kinds of regulatory formalities.


During its 37th Session (held in Montréal from 28 September to 8 October 2010), the ICAO Assembly unanimously adopted a Declaration on Aviation Security which focuses on four main target areas: enhanced screening technologies to detect prohibited articles, strengthening of international standards, improving security information sharing and providing capacity-building assistance to States in need. The WCO Policy Commission in turn adopted a Communiqué on Air Cargo Security in December which underlines the importance of national and international cooperation, coordinated border management, threat information sharing, strengthened use of intelligence-driven risk management and enhanced Customs-Business partnerships.


In November 2010, the Council of ICAO approved new and strengthened standards which include a requirement for its Member States to establish a supply chain security process on their territory. The new provisions become applicable in July 2011. The Secretary General of the WCO and his counterpart at the ICAO agreed on 15 March 2011 to expand cooperation between their two agencies in tackling threats to global air cargo security. Closer collaboration between the WCO and ICAO is expected to significantly minimize the operational and financial impact of security measures by reducing or eliminating duplication in systems and processes, while enhancing synergies. The end result will be a more effective and efficient response to current as well as new and emerging threats to the security of the global trade supply chain, a critical element of the world economy, the two heads stressed. The WCO, together with ICAO, will carry out a review of its existing procedures through a newly constituted Technical Experts Group on Air Cargo Security. They will analyze such vital issues as electronic advance data, the sharing of information at various levels (government-to-government, Customs-to-Customs and Customs-to-industry) and risk management. 


The quality and accuracy of passenger data are keys to effective risk management and could increase the accuracy of hit rates in passenger profiling and targeting. Enhancing data quality is not an overnight process. The WCO, together with ICAO and IATA, meet regularly within the framework of the WCO/IATA/ICAO API/PNR (Advance Passenger Information/Passenger Name Record) Contact Committee to help Members identify data quality issues, understand the cause of problems, mitigate risks, and find appropriate solutions to increase data quality.


The WCO, in cooperation with ICAO and IATA, has been working on the revision of the WCO/IATA/ICAO Guidelines on Advance Passenger Information (API). The WCO also cooperated with ICAO in the areas of simplifying Customs procedures vis-à-vis air passengers and cargo. The WCO also actively contributed to ICAO’s work on maintaining and revising Annex 9 to the Convention on International Civil Aviation-Facilitation. This annex covers many Customs procedures. A MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) between the WCO and ICAO was signed on 24 June 2011 for the promotion of tighter airfreight security. In addition to protecting cargo from terrorist attacks and illegal tampering, ICAO and WCO also hope to expedite the transportation process. One of the outputs from the cooperation with WCO has been the release of the second edition of “ICAO-WCO Moving Air Cargo Globally”. This document is available in six official ICAO languages. It is designed to promote a better awareness of the air cargo and mail supply chain. It includes general updates, with input from stakeholders, regulators and industry. It also contains new material on the economic impact of cargo movements, recognizing how international distribution chains can be an engine for regional economic development.


Cargo supply chains, the process of moving consignments from origin to destination, are often complex and subject to a range of regulatory requirements, especially when they include international movements and transport by air. Air cargo is highly diverse in its physical characteristics and value; it may originate from, and be delivered to, almost anywhere in the world, most commonly as goods being sent from a seller to a buyer or from a consignor to a consignee. The cargo will be handled along the chain by a number of entities with varying responsibilities, including aircraft operators, express carriers, postal operators, regulated agents, consignors, consignees, hauliers and ground handlers.


The ICAO regulatory framework for the air cargo secure supply chain has been developed incrementally over a period of time and is set out in a series of Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs) in Annex 17 Security to the Chicago Convention, supported by guidance material in the Aviation Security Manual (Document 8973 – Restricted). This regulatory framework remains under constant review and is periodically updated to provide the best responses to evolving threats.


The first Joint Conference between ICAO and WCO was hosted by Singapore (held at the Orchard Hotel, Singapore) from 5 and 6 July 2012 on the subject of Enhancing Air Cargo Security and Facilitation – Synergy Through Cooperation. It brought together more than 300 aviation security and customs authorities, as well as private sector stakeholders, from 40 countries. The Conference identified a number of action items for inclusion in a Joint Action Plan. Subsequently, ICAO and the WCO undertook a series of cooperative initiatives including:

1.      the publication of a joint brochure entitled “Moving Air Cargo Globally” in 2013;

2.      the development of a joint training module on air cargo security and facilitation;

3.      the development of a Joint Authorized Economic Operator/Regulated Agent pilot programme; and

4.      the creation of a Joint Working Group on Advance Cargo Information.


On 7 September 2013, the Heads of ICAO, IMO and WCO met in London to discuss supply chain security and related issues, which cut across the mandates of the organizations.


ICAO and WCO completed their second Joint Conference on Enhancing Air Cargo Security and Facilitation on 16 and 17 April 2014 at the Gulf Hotel in Manama, Bahrain, reinforcing their common message that a secure and efficient air cargo supply chain is essential for international trade and world economic development. Hosted by the Kingdom of Bahrain, the Joint Conference brought together over 300 participants from States, international and regional organizations, regulatory authorities and industry stakeholders. While the first Joint Conference paved the way for enhanced international cooperation, the Bahrain Joint Conference stressed the importance of coordinating secure supply chain implementation at the regional and national levels as a natural progression of these international initiatives. The Bahrain Conference highlighted both current and future challenges to air cargo security and facilitation, and succeeded in identifying practical and sustainable solutions to these challenges.


ICAO and WCO convened their third Joint Conference on the subject of Enhancing Air Cargo Security and Facilitation – the Path to Effective Implementation, at the Sama-Sama Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia from 26 to 28 July 2016. Hosted by the Government of Malaysia, the Conference brought together international and regional organizations, regulatory authorities and other stakeholders to address current and future challenges in air cargo security and facilitation. The event was attended by over 300 participants coming from more than 70 States. The conference concluded that a robust regulatory framework, reinforced by good guidance material, was now substantially in place throughout the globe, but recognized that more work was required to ensure even implementation of its provisions. The requirements for achieving this would be high quality and targeted training programmes, focused capacity building, increased use of electronic communication channels and the promotion of innovation, all reinforced by effective quality control and compliance monitoring. Alternative paths to the effective implementation were illustrated during the conference by reference to a range of international, regional and national initiatives.


A Regional Joint ICAO/WCO workshop on Air Cargo Security and Facilitation was held at the International Air Transport Association, (IATA) Centre in Geneva, Switzerland, from 23 to 26 January 2017.


This ever-increasing air travel provides the potential for the economy to grow, for example, as a result of tourism, business, meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions. At the same time, it presents challenges to border control authorities, including customs, in terms of ensuring passenger facilitation, safety, security and compliance with relevant laws and regulations. To reduce the burden on passengers at the airport terminal, customs authorities and partner government agencies are continuously looking for more efficient ways to manage borders through innovative and collaborative approaches. To this end in 2019, the WCO has introduced an initiative promoting the transformation of frontiers into “SMART” borders for seamless trade, travel and transport. SMART borders aim to make border-crossing activities, such as international travel, less cumbersome by managing procedures “smartly”. The initiative follows five guiding principles: Secure, Measurable, Automated, Risk Management-based and Technology-driven. From a customs perspective, the SMART guiding principles are applicable to managing not only the movement of passengers, but also the goods and conveyances (means of transport). The initiative is also in line with current recommended practice on the use of advance passenger data in the form of advance passenger information (API), the passenger name record (PNR) for passenger risk management and targeting, thus facilitating a large majority of legitimate passengers and controlling risky ones. API and PNR data have enabled customs to target known and unknown threats prior to the arrival of passengers at the terminal.


To further assist air transport regulators and operators in their mitigation of security threats associated with air cargo activities, ICAO and the World Customs Organization (WCO) have released a revised supply chain and secure mail publication on 24 July 2023. The highly complex nature of the air cargo and mail operating environment, involving a multiplicity of entities, might add to the day-to-day operational difficulties of implementing security measures and countering threats. The advice, which has been published in the third edition of Moving Air Cargo Globally, describes the roles and responsibilities of these various entities, and highlights how they can work together effectively to secure air cargo and mail within the regulatory framework. The guidance issued also highlights the increasing importance of the digitalization of cargo processes, in order to make them better fit for purpose in modern multimodal supply chains, and more agile, responsive, and secure in the face of new opportunities and threats. It focuses on measures around high-risk cargo and screening, including preventive security measures directed at staff members to mitigate the threats posed by insiders.


Miniature sheet issued by Maldives in 2002

to commemorate the 50th anniversary of WCO.