Azeri Observer interviewed Roger Hermann, Head of the European Regional Office of the World Customs Organization in Baku, Azerbaijan

Q:   What was the impetus for opening the European Regional Office of the World Customs Organization in Azerbaijan?

A.: At the Conference of Heads of Customs Services of the European Region held in Bergen, Norway in May 2009, the Chairman of the State Customs Committee of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Mr. Aydin Aliyev, proposed the creation of the European Regional Office for Capacity Building based in Baku. The meeting supported the initiative. In June 2009, the above decision was endorsed by the Council of the World Customs Organization (WCO).

In pursuance of this decision on 11 November 2009, the WCO and the Government of the Republic of Azerbaijan signed a Memorandum of Understanding, which became the legal basis for constructing the European Regional Office for Capacity Building in Baku. The Regional Office for Capacity Building (ROCB) for the World Customs Organization (WCO) Europe Region was officially opened in Baku, Azerbaijan on October 17, 2011.ROCB Europe is the 6th and final ROCB and is also WCO’s largest region with its 52 members.

The regional capacity-building efforts aim at modernizing customs services by taking into consideration global directions, standards and the WCO’s “Customs in the 21st Century” policy document, the WCO Framework of Standards to Secure and Facilitate Global Trade (SAFE), the Revised Kyoto Convention and the WCO Capacity Building Compendium.

The regional delivery of capacity building considers regional needs, supporting members to better fulfill their core functions as customs administrations. Taking into due consideration the vision of the WCO members, the motivation behind the establishment of WCO ROCB’s was to address key regional development areas identified as priority focus for customs services. These areas reflect customs services’ desire to enable their governments to meet their policy objectives in respect to: revenue mobilization, market access, trade facilitation, investment promotion, trade statistics gathering, and protection of society from a range of social and national security concerns.

Q.:  How did you come to work with the WCO? How long have you been the Head of the Regional Office of the WCO in Baku?

A.:  I was elected by the Director General’s conference in spring 2015 as head of the ROCB, mandated for four years with the possibility to extend for periods of one year thereafter. My detailed knowledge of the customs and trade business that I have gained over the past 30 years working for the Swiss Customs Authority, the European Community and the WCO played an important role in why I was elected for this post.

Q.:  The WCO is based in Brussels, Belgium. What exactly is the purpose of the regional offices of the WCO?

A.:  The Regional Office for Capacity Building (ROCB) is a regional capacity building initiative, driven by the efforts and needs of the members of the six WCO regions (Americas and Caribbean Region; European Region; Asia Pacific Region; North Africa, Near and Middle East Region; Eastern and Southern African Region; West and Central African Region).

The modernization of customs services depends on the individual members and full engagement with their governments. The WCO regional structures are there to support the Secretariat and members in mobilizing resources and developing partnerships to deliver the necessary wide range of organizational development services, training, and technical assistance activities.

A regional approach to capacity building has various advantages: it ensures efficient and effective allocation of the WCO’s limited resources for capacity building and enables the capacity building initiative to focus on those areas where the maximum potential for regional co-operation and synergy lies. Moreover, regionalized capacity building facilitates regional cooperation and ensures the enhanced coherence and synergy of capacity building activities pursued by different donors in each region, which brings about a significant increase in the quantity of funding and technical support currently available.

Q.:  What are some of the Europe regional office’s ongoing projects?

A.:  Following the WCO Regional Capacity Building Strategy, we support members mainly in their needs assessment process and help coordinate capacity building activities within the WCO Europe region. We are developing several projects in close collaboration with the WCO Secretariat, including:

  • an integrated performance measurement system
  • a reform and modernization – CB network
  • development of strategic objectives and indicators for monitoring the results of projects and programs
  • regional workshops on trade control systems
  • training workshops on seal manipulation.

Q.:  How is your office coordinating with the Azerbaijan government on customs issues?

A.:  I would like to highlight the very good cooperation that has prevailed between the ROCB and the State Customs Committee (SCC) of the Republic of Azerbaijan, especially with the Chairman, Prof. Aydin Aliyev. Thanks to the vision and courage of Mr. Aliyev, the ROCB for the WCO Europe region was established in 2011 in Baku. He is a distinguished persona and expert on international trade and customs related issues. Mister Aliyev is a globally recognized person and supporter of the formation of customs universities. He is a graduate in Law from Baku (former Azerbaijan) State University and author of educational and scientific articles and books on customs matters which have been published in several countries. His contributions to the development of customs administrations and for strengthening customs cooperation have been recognized by the World Customs Organization.

Needless to say, thanks to his tireless support, the ROCB in Baku is well recognized by all of its member countries. The whole building and its infrastructure is provided by the SCC and the State of Azerbaijan. These excellent conditions are what make it possible for the ROCB to fulfill its tasks to the WCO Europe Region.

In close cooperation with the WCO Secretariat and the Vice-Chair of the WCO Council for the European Region, our office monitors the progress of the reforms carried out by the various customs authorities in the region. Together with the Secretariat of the WCO, we provide them with the full cooperation and assistance in solving emerging problems and contribute to the development of the WCO Regional Capacity Building Strategy.

Q.:  What are your goals for the regional office of the WCO for the next 5 years?

A.:  I have developed a multi-annual activity plan for the next three years. In a nutshell, there are four overall objectives that can be described as follows:

  • Fostering members’ process of reform and modernization through proper coordination of their efforts and implementation of WCO conventions, standards and tools
  • Strengthening regional cooperation with members by implementing mutual capacity building assistance and information sharing projects
  • Enhancing assistance to members in human resources development, training and management
  • Enhancing collaboration with development partners in the region (international organizations and donors).

Q.:  Are there any major initiatives underway within the organization that you would like to highlight?

A.:  The World Trade Organization (WTO) Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) has entered into force and will become a major driver for customs and border reform and modernization. New needs and new expectations from member customs administrations have initiated a number of capacity building programs and activities. The WCO Secretariat has put into force special advisors to support member countries by providing support using WCO tools and instruments.

A second initiative is the Vision for Transit in the Europe Region of the WCO. The importance of facilitating transport for the economy of the Europe Region of the WCO is undisputed. Customs place a vital role in facilitating transport. Ensuring the smoother handling of the transit regime is a core competence of customs.

The vision of the Vice-Chair of the Europe Region is to have a transit regime that would be compatible throughout the entire Europe region including the Caucasus and Central Asia and the Russian Federation within the next ten years. A first project group steered by the Vice-Chair of the Europe Region has been implemented.

Q.:  The new Container and Cargo Training Center was installed in the backyard of the regional office in Baku earlier this year. Please tell us about the purpose of the center.

A.:  Containers are the means of transport, for now and in the future. The idea to reinvent the so-called Silk Road, a traffic route running from China to Europe was born in 1990. Stakeholders built different forms of organizations like the Transport-Corridor-Europe-Caucasus-Asia (TRACECA). Experts anticipate that profits for countries along the Trans-Caspian international transport route will increase in the future as a result of freight transportation. It is expected that several hundred thousand containers will be transported via this route in the coming years. This increased amount of container traffic can only be handled with increased efficiency and the best-trained and knowledgeable staff.

The facility was built to train frontline officers in container and cargo control and is the second center in the world after the one in Rotterdam. It was built with the kind support of the Customs Authority of the Netherlands.

The Container and Cargo Training Center Baku is inspired by the Rotterdam model. It will provide an additional useful benefit for the whole region. As a result, the customs authorities along the Silk Route will be able to and are in the position to train and prepare their own staff for this challenge of increased traffic in the future.

Q.:  What are your thoughts about Azerbaijan’s ambitious ‘Port of Baku’ project that is currently under construction that will include, among other things, a new Free Trade Zone?

A.:  Creating a Free Trade Zone (FTZ) will strengthen Azerbaijan’s position as a regional logistics and transportation hub. The FTZ has the potential to provide a boost to the economy and can also generate income for the government and attract investors.

Q.:  How familiar with Azerbaijan were you before you moved here? What has surprised you the most since moving here?

A.:  I’d worked before in the Capacity Building Directorate of the WCO in Brussels. I was in charge of some tasks related to the ROCB and was in professional contact with my former colleague working at the ROCB in Baku. I had the chance to undergo a three-month practical training in Baku before I was elected as head of the ROCB.

I am impressed by the cultural diversity, the tolerance and the hospitality of its people. I am very happy to stay here in Baku. Baku has become something like my second home, where I like to spend my time.