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By Stevenson Liu

PORT VILA, Vanuatu (March 25, 2000 -- Vanuatu Weekly/ Hebdomadaire)---A team of experts from Australia, New Zealand, the United States, the Forum Secretariat, the Asia Pacific Group on Money Laundering (APG), and Singapore is currently in the country as part of their mission to determine the necessity for and viability of a financial intelligence information exchange vehicle in the Pacific Islands region.

The term "Money Laundering" is defined in the 1988 Vienna Convention and by the APG, as "the process of converting cash, or other property which is derived from criminal activity, so as to give it the appearance of having been obtained from a legitimate source."

The Team consists of two groups - one from the Offshore Group of Banking Supervisors and the other from the APG on Money Laundering.

According to Director General of Finance Jeffrey Wilfred, the team is also looking at mechanisms in place, such as laws that could be used to restrict money laundering activities and to prosecute people involve in illegal operations.

According to Mr. Wilfred, Vanuatu has such legislation but whether it is enforced is another matter that is being brought up with the team.

"We must tell them whether employees of financial institutions, for example, are protected if they report suspected transactions," he said. "They're not in the country to investigate us but to see whether we have the tools -- law, police, public prosecutors and banks and general public to fight money laundering."

"One of their aims is to find out if there is a necessity for the establishment of a regional central intelligence information unit that would act as a focal point in collecting information from such countries as Vanuatu, Fiji, the Cook Islands and Samoa on money laundering activities," he said.

The idea was first brought up in two separate anti-money laundering training sessions held in Vanuatu and the Cook Islands back in 1998.

During those training programs, both governments commented on the need for a centralized facility to collect and share financial intelligence information.

According to Mr. Wilfred, in order to try to fulfill the clear need for better financial information collection and sharing, it is necessary to consider what types of information are necessary to collect and share.

The proposed two types of information include commercial data, which includes financial information concerning the background and legitimacy of people applying for banking licenses, company registrations and the like, or who are making a business proposal to a government.

The other is criminal intelligence information, which can usually only be obtained from police or other law enforcement agencies.

When asked about his view of about a central intelligence unit, Mr. Wilfred said a regional intelligence unit is a good idea.

"But I think we should first have an internal intelligence unit and that unit would, in turn, join the regional unit," he said.

Vanuatu not so long ago established a group involving police, the Financial Service Commission and the Bankers Association to act along this point.

"It failed to gain momentum and, as a result, it does not now exist. However, we are trying to establish a different group that we would call an Offshore Working Group, and the Ministry of Finance is preparing related documents for submission to the Council of Ministers for approval," he said.

This could be the start of Vanuatu's Central Information Agency, which would operate in line with the proposed Regional Intelligence Unit.

The Team includes a representative from the U.S. Federal Reserve Board, U.S. FinCEN, U.S. Treasury, the Asia/Pacific Group on Money Laundering, the New Zealand Financial Intelligence Unit, AUSTRAC, and the Forum Secretariat.

The team left for Samoa this weekend.

For additional reports from the Vanuatu Weekly/Hebdomadaire, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Other News Resources/ Vanuatu Weekly/Hebdomadaire.

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