20 June 2017 - An often unconsidered reality: organized crime may be impacting our daily lives more than we can imagine. As criminal groups join ever more complex networks spanning the globe, crimes become increasingly transnational and diversified, and the ways they reap profits are becoming more creative as well.
So what can we do to help stop this? Education and awareness-raising are of course key and to highlight the importance of this a side event at the United Nations General Assembly was held today in New York as part of UNODC's Education for Justice (E4J) initiative. Aimed at shedding light on this issue, showcasing the invaluable role of education, and highlighting to the public the type of ways in which they can reduce their exposure to organized crime, the event followed this week's High Level Discussion on Transnational Organized Crime in the General Assembly.
As the guardian of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime - the world's leading instrument in tackling this issue - UNODC works with Governments, international organizations and civil society groups to enhance international cooperation and build capacity to counter organized crime. In this, the organization is also tasked with monitoring emerging crimes which can both threaten global security as well as ultimately impact people at large as they fall victim to organized crime in an increasing number of ways and in a growing number of places.
One of the ways in which UNODC looks to counter uninformed consumer decisions in supporting organized crime is through a greater degree of public education and vigilance. Among other avenues, E4J - part of the Doha Declaration Global Programme supported by the State of Qatar - works to raise awareness and to educate the public at primary, secondary and university levels about the core UNODC-mandated areas: crime prevention, criminal justice and the rule of law. By bringing together United Nations experts, Government counterparts and academia, today's event showcased a range of practical examples as to how organized crime can affects people's lives. Crucially, this aims to raise awareness that more needs to be done through education in order to ultimately tackle these issues.
The event introduced the important role of E4J, noting particularly the links to the Sustainable Development Goals and the specific target which calls on Member States to engage in education on the promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence; and also highlighted the importance of understanding criminal issues and the linkages between organized crime and everyday life, as well as conducting more academic teaching and research in this area.
At the side event, Riikka Puttonen - UNODC expert on organized crime - pointed out that the issue is very much about markets and that criminal groups go anywhere money can be made. Being flexible and opportunistic, criminal groups can infiltrate legitimate markets and do not necessarily limit themselves to large operations such as trafficking in drugs, firearms or persons, but also insinuate themselves into ordinary businesses. Providing a range of examples, Ms. Puttonen pointed to the expanse of organized crime's reach: in New Zealand, for example, where honey prices have skyrocketed, organized criminal groups are getting involved in large-scale stealing of beehives. Meanwhile in Italy, anti-mafia prosecutors are concerned that the country's organized criminal groups have infiltrated agriculture and food markets; ranging from mozzarella to olive oil, oranges and citrus, illicit products are being sold in Italian wholesale markets and local supermarket chains, and even exported. Organized crime believes that the market is endless, and the potential for profit enormous, while the risks are low.
Besides food fraud, organized crime also takes form in counterfeit goods, falsified medicines, trafficking in persons, including for labour exploitation, and cybercrime. UNODC's head of cybercrime, Neil Walsh, gave the example of hidden services offered by organized criminal groups on the Darknet - a collection of tens of thousands of websites that use anonymity tools like TOR (the most popular way to access the Darknet) to try and hide their IP address and location. The most well-known use of the Darknet is for black-market activities such as the sale of drugs, weapons, cyber exploit kits, ransomware and the sexual exploitation of children.
Highlighting the need for more to be done through using education to tackle such crimes, the panel was joined by Jay Albanese, Professor and Chair of Criminal Justice Programmes at Virginia Commonwealth University, who posed the question: "Apart from anti-reconnaissance measures, what is it that makes the organized crime so difficult to tackle?" One of the central problems in the persistence of organized crime, explained Prof. Albanese, is the consumers' tolerance for it. The participation of so many average citizens in the market for stolen goods and illegal services frustrates efforts to weaken the grip of organized criminal groups. Some of this participation in illicit markets is due to ignorance of the risk and links between common behaviours and organized crime - and how the public inadvertently contributes to organized crime by engaging in low-visibility conduct that has unseen but far-reaching effects in strengthening organized crime.
The panel members all pointed out that small acts can cause great harm - but that greater awareness can help mitigate these actions. The organized crime cycle requires active consumer participation - whether this is buying a fake energy drink or a counterfeit luxury item. By the simple gesture of purchasing something, one may, without knowing it, already be involved in money laundering, violating intellectual property rights or affecting the ability of legitimate businesses to sell products and employ workers. Even worse, some of the products are the result of labour exploitation taking place in sweatshops; or they may create criminal opportunities for illicit transporters and vendors. The benefits then continue to fund organized crime and expand its activities.
Considering that consumer willingness fuels the manufacture of illicit goods by criminal groups and that unauthorized purchases by citizens could directly support organized crime enterprises, education is truly the key to combatting this. A well-informed general public who are aware of the far-reaching consequences of their decisions will contribute greatly to the security and productivity of their society, and, ultimately, to the quality of their lives.