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Transnational Crime

Nations Build Alliances to Stop Organized Crime

By Pino Arlacchi
Executive Director, United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention

The UNDCCP will play a major role in helping nations coordinate their anti-crime efforts. This article is based on a speech Mr. Arlacchi delivered at the Australian Institute of Criminology's 4th National Outlook Symposium on Crime in Australia in June 2001.


Crime is no longer a problem that any nation can consider in isolation. If we want to understand it, and to combat it, we must see crime in its global context.

Organized crime, except for some cross-border smuggling, used to be a largely local -- or at worst -- a national affair. But in the last quarter of the 20th century, organized criminal enterprises were able to exploit the same economic liberalization and open borders that gave rise to the expansion of multinational corporations. The opportunities for globalization have been embraced by organized crime groups that engage in illegal activities or deal in illicit goods. Today organized crime is a truly transnational phenomenon and is a subject of international concern. The risk to regional and even global stability is very real.

Transnational organized crime groups are, in many ways, profiting the most from globalization. Legitimate business is still constrained by domestic and host country laws and regulations. Transnational crime syndicates and networks manage, with the help of corruption, blackmail, and intimidation, to use open markets and open societies to their full advantage.

Their work is made easier by the lack of effective law enforcement, and the lack of fast and effective extradition practices in many countries. Eluding national law enforcement control is a basic working principle of transnational crime. Foreign jurisdictions become safe spaces, and borders are used as fences to hide behind.

The detection and neutralization of transnational organized crime groups become even more difficult because these groups tend to use legitimate import-export firms, service industries, or even multinational financial institutions as cover for their activities. Sometimes the criminal organization only nests itself inside a larger business; at other times it actually controls it. The border line between the activities of white collar or corporate crime on the one hand and transnational organized crime on the other is often fuzzy.

We have three basic types of crime-related business corporations:

  • Illegal business structures, such as drug cartels;

  • Legal firms that engage in white-collar crime, such as banks specializing de facto in the facilitation of money laundering and tax evasion;

  • Licit enterprises founded, in whole or in part, by money obtained from organized crime.

The picture becomes even more complex when we consider the involvement of elements of the state apparatus, political parties, the military, or intelligence services. The decline of totalitarian states has driven many former members of the state security agencies into businesses, some legitimate, some not.

For organized crime, this influx of professional intelligence, police, and military know-how has meant a quantum jump in sophistication. Crime groups can in certain cases outsmart the police because they have better technique, better equipment, and more resources.

The involvement of present or former state officials in organized crime is not confined to former communist states. Wherever there is an absence of transparency and accountability, the opportunity for crimes of greed is present. They often only become visible when a scandal breaks out or when a political shift brings a new group into power, eager to expose the misdeeds of the former regime. Two recent examples of this are the events in Peru and Yugoslavia.

Organized criminal organizations not only maintain links with some legitimate businesses and some sectors of governments. They at times also thrive from terrorism and civil war. In some 30 countries, groups engaged in armed rebellion against the government finance their guerrilla or terrorist campaigns, in whole or in part, with income generated by taxing the production of drugs or by being directly involved in trafficking.

It is no coincidence that the unrest in southeast Europe in the 1990s was linked to the Balkan route that transports every year tons of heroin into Europe. It is no coincidence that Afghanistan, Colombia, and Myanmar are the world's three most important drug producers and also the scene of some of the longest civil wars in the last 50 years.

The fuel that keeps civil wars going changes. Sometimes it is illicit drugs; sometimes diamonds, as in the case of Africa; sometimes other legal products like oil. Organized crime is eager to profit from every aspect of these wars, even the human tragedy of refugees. In order to leave combat zones, refugees often rely on criminal traffickers to get them to safety.

Others make use of criminal trafficking networks to leave their country for economic or other reasons, hoping to rebuild their existence in distant countries. Whether the cause is war or poverty, the displacements tend to drive the best and the brightest to foreign shores. There they look for a new home, often in communities formed by ethnic diasporas.

Examine some of the staggering numbers compiled as these criminal activities have expanded in recent years. As many as one million women and children are trafficked every year across national borders by criminal groups, adding to the already existing millions living under modern forms of slavery -- 27 million by one expert's estimate, up to 200 million by another estimate.

The placing of stolen assets abroad has reached unprecedented levels. The president of Nigeria just told me that the amount of assets stolen to his country and deposited abroad is close to $50,000 million. Individual money laundering cases are also in the thousands of millions of dollars, larger than the gross domestic product of many countries.

At the same time, organized crime also provides certain goods and fulfills certain services for which there is public demand -- services and goods that a given state or society does not want to provide for reasons of politics, public health, religion, ethnic, or cultural norms. Once again, the motive is profit.

What is legal and what is illegal is determined by the law and implemented by state institutions. But the standards and norms are not the same in all societies, and the level of effective implementation varies widely.

When a transnational element enters crime, successful prosecution often becomes more difficult. When the criminal acts take place in different jurisdictions, the transnational criminals can only be successfully tried if all the parts of the international investigative puzzle are laid next to each other and interlinked. This requires international police and judicial cooperation. Yet there are many obstacles to such cooperation -- different legal systems, bureaucratic inertia, the pervasiveness of corruption in some law enforcement services and judiciaries, the simple lack of resources and skills, and even linguistic incompatibility.

Responses to Transnational Crime

This leads me to the other side of the coin -- the response to transnational crime.

During three days in December 2000, heads of government, heads of state, and ministers from around the world came to Palermo, in Sicily, to a Signing Conference for the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. By the end of the three days, representatives of 124 countries had signed the convention.

No United Nations convention has ever had so many signatories immediately upon its opening for signature and less than one month after its formal adoption by the General Assembly.

Evidence of this began to emerge even before the event in Palermo. The drafting process, which took a relatively short period of less than two years, was carried out in a highly positive spirit. Consensus was achieved without compromising the quality of the new instrument and without making it any less functional.

The drafters were in a position to look at best practices around the world and incorporate them into a state-of-the-art instrument for fighting transnational crime.

A major breakthrough is the agreement to criminalize the simple participation in an organized criminal group, whether or not the individual actually carried out a crime personally.

In ratifying the convention, governments also commit themselves to criminalizing money laundering, corruption, and obstruction of justice. The language on bank secrecy is blunt: "States shall not decline to act ... on the ground of bank secrecy." This may prove to be one of the most effective elements of the Palermo Convention, since organized crime loses much of its appeal if the profits from it cannot be safely held.

The new convention provides a framework for the confiscation and seizure of the proceeds of organized crime and of property or equipment used in criminal acts. Special provisions are included for international cooperation in this respect, a very important tool for the recovery of assets stolen through corruption and placed abroad.

The longest article in the convention is devoted to mutual legal assistance, addressing a wide range of very practical ways in which states can cooperate with each other. In addition, separate articles cover joint investigations and the use of special investigative techniques.

State-of-the-art techniques that have proven useful in bilateral cooperation arrangements are now elevated to global status. For example, the electronic transmission of requests from one country to another is allowable under the language used in the convention.

The intimidation of potential witnesses has been a major hindrance to successful prosecution of organized crime. The Palermo Convention requires states to establish procedures for the physical protection of witnesses. In addition to the more established practices in this regard, states are encouraged to use modern techniques like video links.

Victims who testify against organized crime groups are also vulnerable to retaliation or intimidation. Signatories must provide assistance and protection when needed, as well as compensation and restitution if appropriate.

The protection of victims is central to two protocols that were also opened for signature in Palermo. The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, is in fact a strong humanitarian instrument that advances the cause of human rights. The Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants also addresses the special problems of victims in some detail.

The protocols and the convention incorporate a new element that reflects today's thinking on how to fight organized crime. For the first time, specific articles address the prevention of crime. Linkages between crime and poverty are explicitly addressed, and the importance of public opinion as a prevention tool is stressed.

The Palermo Convention is a clear response to transnational crime. The reason for this success is clear. The level and intensity of international crime have gone beyond what governments and the general population are prepared to accept. The convention is the cornerstone of an emerging international strategy to combat transnational organized crime. But there is more to come. Additional international legal instruments are in preparation.

A third Protocol to the Palermo Convention addresses the traffic in firearms. This protocol has been just recently approved.

The General Assembly decided late last year to proceed with the negotiation of a convention against corruption. If governments succeed in maintaining the same approach and high degree of consensus that characterized the negotiation of the Palermo Convention and its protocols, we can expect a convention ready for adoption within two years.

We can expect more as the international community reaches consensus on responses to some of the newer forms of crime, like Internet-based offenses. Already various regional or more narrowly focused agreements are being reached on everything from doping in sports to offshore banking.

By establishing standards, these agreements put in place the mark that individual countries must achieve. As long as the worldwide consensus in favor of action remains in place, this can be an effective approach.

The standards also form the basis on which greater international cooperation can be established. We already have in place global programs on money laundering, on corruption, and on trafficking in human beings, aimed primarily at helping countries to meet the new global standards.

There are grounds for serious concern at the scope of transnational crime and its rapid growth. But the response that is now taking shape and gaining momentum gives grounds for optimism. This effort will need the commitment of every country, because no real success can be achieved if weak links exist in the chain. This commitment will only persist if it reflects a commitment by the public to ensure that we do not move towards a world in which democracy and human security are undermined by these new threats.


Mr. Arlacchi heads the Geneva-based UNDCCP and is also
a U.N. Under Secretary-General.