How UN Conventions against corruption, crime and drugs can promote the rule of law and human security in South Eastern Europe

Regional High Level Conference
Belgrade, 30 March 2009

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

For at least two decades it has been a cliché to talk about "trouble in the Balkans" because of organized crime and inter-ethnic violence.

That image is changing, and rightly so. The vicious circle of political instability leading to crime, and vice versa, that plagued the Balkans in the 1990s has been broken. The region is now seen as a tourist destination, an investment opportunity, and a part of Europe. 

One of the safest regions of Europe

As UNODC pointed out in its Report on Crime and its Impact on the Balkans - launched one year ago - the region has become one of the safest parts of Europe. In general, levels of crime against people and property (like homicide, robbery, rape, burglary, and assault) are lower than in Western Europe. Murder rates are at, or below, the European average, and declining. Even the number of nationals from South Eastern Europe being held in Western European prisons has gone down. This positive trend has been particularly noticeable in the past few years.

Progress is likely to continue since the region lacks the usual vulnerabilities that lead to crime elsewhere in the world: mass poverty; income inequality; run-away urbanisation; and large-scale youth unemployment.

However, the region remains vulnerable because of a number of factors: some are homemade, others are external.

Corruption: this homemade problem should be public enemy number one

The biggest homemade problem is corruption. Victim surveys indicate that, on average, South East Europeans are more likely to face demands for bribes than people in other regions of the world.

Profiteers of the past and opportunists of the present are trying to launder their reputations and money through business and politics. Shady links between business, politics, and the underworld endanger democracy and the rule of law, undermine legitimacy of public institutions and erode business confidence.

Corruption is also a lubricant for organized crime.

Trafficking through the Balkans

With the exception of identity-related theft, production of synthetic drugs, and some human trafficking, the Balkans is a transit region, rather than a source, of organized crime. I don't say this to exonerate you, rather to put the problem in a broader international context.

Your region remains the premier transit zone for heroin going from Afghanistan to Western Europe (about 80-100 tons each year). There are also increasing reports of the Balkans being used as an entry point for cocaine shipments. The problem of drug trafficking is also spilling over into drug use - posing a threat to public health.

Smuggling of cigarettes, weapons and people also remains a concern, although diminishing.

How to deal with these threats, both homemade and external?

Strengthening national and regional capacity

The answer is to strengthen national capacity (justice and integrity), and regional cooperation (to fight organized crime). Greater emphasis should also be placed on improving public health (drug prevention/treatment). Those are the three pillars of the Regional Programme to promote the rule of law and human security in South Eastern Europe.

First, justice and integrity. Politics and business need to be better insulated from the corrosive influence of crime. I therefore urge you to make corruption public enemy number one. The United Nations Convention against Corruption is your ally - I am glad to note that you are all Parties to it. Use this powerful legal instrument to fight some of the ills afflicting your region: economic crimes like counterfeiting, bribery, major procurement fraud, money laundering, embezzlement, duty evasion and abuse of power. And use the Convention to recover stolen assets.

Second, organized crime. Again, there is a strong UN legal instrument at your disposal: the Palermo Convention. It creates the legal basis to deal with criminals who respect neither laws nor borders.

Again, you are all Parties to it. So put the Convention to work for you: by passing the laws needed to criminalize human trafficking; improve border management and intelligence-sharing; carry out joint training and counter-narcotics operations; and modernize your financial intelligence units to curb money laundering and terrorist financing.

These are all relatively new areas of international law and multi-lateral cooperation. There are plenty of specialist organizations that can help: UNODC of course, but also the European Commission, OSCE, SECI Centre, and the Regional Cooperation Council.

The third area of our common focus is public health. Greater resources and attention are needed to scale up drug prevention and treatment services. This is essential to steer people away from drugs, and reduce the negative health and social consequences of drug dependence, including HIV and AIDS. Again, UNODC is your partner - inspired by the UN drug control conventions and motivated by a pro-health philosophy.

Safer and healthier communities

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Today you are stating your intention to strengthen the rule of law and human security in South Eastern Europe. You are also agreeing to a Regional Programme that will strengthen your individual and collective ability to fight corruption and organized crime, and improve drug prevention and treatment.

The implementation of this Programme will lead to safer and healthier communities, and further enhance the image of this region among your European peers and in the world.  

Thank you all for your participation and commitment to implementing this common Programme. And my thanks to Serbia for hosting this High Level Conference.