Antonio Maria Costa charts road ahead for UN Office on Drugs and Crime

In an interview with Walter Kemp for Perspectives, the Executive Director considers his second four-year term.

As you begin your second four-year term as UNODC Executive Director, what opportunities and challenges do you see ahead?

The world is a dangerous place. Drugs, crime, corruption and terrorism damage communities and even threaten the integrity of States. UNODC has mandates to address these big issues. Our job is to prevent and tackle uncivil society. That's a tall order and a big responsibility for a relatively small office. There are growing expectations of what UNODC can deliver in terms of technical assistance, legal advice and research, and I want to ensure that we live up to those expectations. I would also like UNODC to be a flagship of reform where Member States can see that they get good value for their money.

Looking back, which field visits have had the most impact on you?

Every time I go to the field I learn something new. Of course, it is important to talk to ministers, diplomats and experts about UNODC's work. They are our stakeholders, and I need to hear first-hand what their priorities and interests are. But it is just as important for me to get out into the streets, prisons and the countryside to see people whose lives are affected by drug addiction, to talk to police, visit prisons and fly to remote regions to meet farmers whom we are trying to help with alternative livelihoods. It is only by meeting such people and seeing the situation on the ground that you get a real appreciation of the challenges.

In some cases, the experiences can be gut-wrenching. I recently visited a park full of drug addicts in New Delhi which was the closest thing I have seen to Dante's vision of hell. In Nigeria, hearing the testimonials of women and girls who have been trafficked was deeply shocking. But there can be other times where you feel that your work is having an impact-visiting treatment centres and meeting people who are bravely overcoming their drug addiction, or talking to farmers in Laos who are justifiably proud of the steps that they have taken to make their villages opium-free.

The United Nations Convention against Corruption and the Firearms Protocol came into force in 2005. What can UNODC and Member States do to ensure that the promises made on paper are implemented?

The UN Convention against Corruption is the first of its kind. It covers prevention, criminalization, judicial collaboration and recovery of assets. Some of its provisions, like asset recovery, are truly revolutionary. Gone are the days when corrupt elites can retire comfortably to a sandy haven, living off ill-gotten gains in unmarked bank accounts. Borders and safe havens should no longer be an impediment to investigations or bringing guilty parties to justice. But of course this requires that countries actually implement the Convention. National legislation and international cooperation are starting to change in line with the Convention. This is very encouraging.

The Firearms Protocol has had less attention, and the rate of ratification has been slow. So greater ratification is a priority. In terms of implementation, the key is to work with States to make sure that their laws make the illicit manufacturing and illicit trafficking of firearms a criminal offence, to train law enforcement officials to improve their abilities to confiscate, seize and dispose of weapons, and to make sure that weapons are properly identified and traceable. Most modern conflicts are fought with small weapons, not tanks and artillery. The more that can be done to prevent and combat the flow of illicit firearms, the better the chances of keeping such weapons out of the hands of criminals, insurgents and terrorists.

You have described cannabis as the weakest link in the global drug control chain. Why?

The popular perception of cannabis is that it is a "soft" or "recreational" drug. The problem is that this lax approach creates a permissive environment for drug abuse. And cannabis can then become a gateway to other harder drugs. Worse than that, the psychoactive substances in cannabis (called THC) are becoming more potent. When I was at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1960s, the cannabis that some students were smoking had 2 or 3 per cent THC content. Today, THC levels of some of the higher-grade cannabis can be ten times as much. That makes cannabis not only more powerful, it makes it more dangerous, not least in its effect on health. So Governments need to have coherent policies on cannabis and to encourage more effective prevention and treatment. 

"I recently visited a park full of drug addicts in New Delhi which
was the closest thing I have seen to Dante's vision of hell."

What do you think of the argument that drugs should simply be legalized?

I disagree. Drugs are illegal because they are dangerous, they are not dangerous because they are illegal. People take drugs because they want to be stimulated or sedated. Either way, their brain changes. Would you want a pilot or train driver or the guy in the car coming towards you to be on drugs? Do we want to make drugs cheaper and increase the number of addicts? Legalization would worsen public health, not improve it. We cannot trade a greater threat to public health against a possible, theoretical decline in crime. Governments need to be able to protect health and provide security.

That being said, prison is not necessarily the best solution for drug addicts. More needs to be done to improve treatment. And heavy-handed eradication of coca or opium fields is not a panacea to reduce supply. There needs to be sustainable development in the drug-producing countries. In short, I am not at all in favour of legalization. But I would urge a more holistic approach to the world drug problem that looks at reducing demand and supply and disrupting the trafficking routes.

Human trafficking is another global problem that affects millions of people. Are we facing a modern form of slavery?

Yes we are. There is no other name for the practice of co-opting women and girls into the sex industry against their will, or forcing people-often young children-into slave labour. States are slowly becoming more aware of this problem and taking steps to stop it and prevent it, but we have a long way to go. Like drugs, the problem is not only about trafficking. We also have to reduce demand and stop the supply. UNODC is very active in this process and we are fortunate to have a very committed Goodwill Ambassador in Julia Ormond. And we are working with States to encourage them to implement the UN Protocol against Human Trafficking. 

Drug abuse has fuelled the spread of HIV/AIDS in certain regions. Is the international community doing enough to contain it?

No. There is still a lot of ignorance about HIV/AIDS. Education is key, as is leadership. The international community is trying hard and civil society is very active in trying to improve prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS. But some Governments are either in denial or simply have not woken up to the extent and dangers of the problem. I am particularly concerned about the spread of AIDS through intravenous drug use. In some parts of the world this problem is reaching epidemic proportions. UNODC is particularly active in this field in Central Asia and India. But more action is necessary in other parts of the world. 

Afghanistan is a mess and opium is a big part of the problem. What can UNODC do about it? 

The situation is getting out of control, certainly in parts of the country. It is very troubling. Opium cultivation shot up this year after a welcome decline in 2005. The profits from the narco-economy are seductive in a country that is so poor and where money can buy power and influence. Drugs, corruption, crime and terrorism are mixed together in a dangerous cocktail. If there is one country that embodies all the things that UNODC works to prevent it is Afghanistan. UNODC measures the extent of opium cultivation in the country. Increasingly, I believe that we will have to help Afghanistan improve its drug treatment programmes since there is growing evidence that addiction is spreading within the country. We are working with Afghanistan and its neighbours to expose and disrupt drug trafficking routes and improve regional cooperation. There will be no long-term stability without sustainable development. So UNODC is working with Afghanistan and the international community to promote alternative development. We are also keeping a close eye on corruption and organized crime which have such a debilitating effect on Afghanistan's growth.   

"I see UNODC as a conscience, reminding States of their
commitments and helping them to live up to their own standards."

UNODC's mission is to make the world safer from crime, drugs and terrorism. How are these issues connected to each other?

Terrorists need money to carry out their attacks. Insurgents need money to survive and to buy weapons. In some cases, terrorism and insurgency are financed by the proceeds of illicit drugs or the profits from organized crime. Because drug trafficking is lucrative, it attracts some of the world's nastiest and most efficient criminal groups. Follow the drug routes from Colombia or Afghanistan to North America or Europe and you will see how drugs support criminal activity, and how this fuels corruption and instability. If we can stop the flow of drugs, prevent illicit revenue from being laundered, and break up the criminal networks that traffic people, guns and drugs, the world would be a safer place.      

Is this really feasible?

Sadly, UNODC's star is rising in the international system because there is an increased need for a multilateral body that tries to control drugs and prevent crime and terrorism. I would like to pay tribute to the far-sightedness of Secretary-General Kofi Annan in merging the UN's drugs and crime programmes 10 years ago. UNODC has a big mission for such a small Office. We have to be realistic and identify those issues and areas where UNODC's involvement can make a difference. UNODC is at its best when it is helping others to help themselves, for example strengthening regional capacity or acting as a match-maker between development banks and farmers who need more support.

On the one hand, I see UNODC as a conscience, reminding States of their commitments and helping them to live up to their own standards. On the other hand, I see UNODC as a catalyst. Because we are small and operational, we can quickly bring an issue to light and seek solutions, paving the way for others with more momentum and leverage to come in behind us to bring about change. Is our mission feasible? It has to be. Otherwise drug abuse will spread, organized crime will infiltrate our societies, corruption will rot our Governments and businesses and we will live in fear of terrorism. That is not a vision of the world that I feel comfortable with.