A version of this article first appeared on UN News
7 December 2023: The UN Secretary-General called for stronger action to fight the growing challenge of transnational organized crime in an address to the Security Council on Thursday.
António Guterres urged countries to strengthen cooperation, the rule of law and prevention efforts against this “vicious threat to peace, security, and sustainable development” that operates everywhere, including cyberspace – “a virtual El Dorado for criminals.”
Transnational organized crime is a multi-billion-dollar industry that encompasses illicit financial flows, the illicit trade in firearms, and trafficking in humans, drugs, natural resources, wildlife and other commodities – all of which are increasingly interlinked.
Despite these many forms, “the ramifications are the same: weakened governance, corruption and lawlessness, open violence, death, and destruction,” said Mr. Guterres.
Furthermore, transnational organized crime and conflict feed off each other, he added, thus undermining the authority and effectiveness of State institutions, eroding the rule of law, and destabilizing law enforcement structures.
He pointed to examples across the world such as Afghanistan and Colombia, where drug production and trafficking fuelled brutal and long-lasting conflicts.
He also cited the situation in Haiti, which is caught in a vicious cycle of state collapse, escalating gang violence and a growing illicit trade of firearms smuggled into the country that has allowed gangs to take control of ports, highways and other critical infrastructure.
“In Myanmar, human trafficking and online scams, often run from outside the country, are flourishing in an environment of violence, repression and the erosion of the rule of law following the military takeover in 2021,” he added.
He noted that in many conflicts, the activities of transnational criminal groups and armed groups overlap and intersect, making conflict resolution even harder.
Mr. Guterres said the links between organized crime and terrorism is another concern. In the Sahel region in Africa, for example, illicit trade in fuel, drugs, arms and natural resources, provides resources for armed groups, threatening the lives and livelihoods of millions.arms and natural resources, provides resources for armed groups, threatening the lives and livelihoods of millions.
Although the Security Council has long recognized the danger posed by transnational organized crime to international peace and security “we must do more to strengthen our defences,” he said, urging action in three priority areas.
As multilateral cooperation is “the only credible path to target the criminal dynamics that fuel violence and prolong cycles of conflict,” it must be strengthened, he said.
The Secretary-General urged Member States to fully implement the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and its three additional protocols, and to work together on investigations and prosecutions.
He also expressed hope that countries will reach consensus on a new treaty on cybercrime, and that they will share and exchange data, noting that crime groups have been quick to exploit cryptocurrencies and digital tools.
His second point highlighted the critical need to strengthen the rule of law which is “foundational to our efforts to find peaceful solutions to conflicts, and tackle the multifaceted threats posed by transnational organized crime.”
Effective rule of law builds trust in institutions, creates a level playing field, and contributes to reducing corruption. It also underpins human rights and enables sustainable social, political, and economic development.
However, “many countries are at grave risk of the Rule of Lawlessness,” he warned. “From unconstitutional seizures of power to the trampling of human rights, governments themselves are contributing to disorder and a lack of accountability.”
Mr. Guterres appealed for countries to strengthen prevention and foster inclusion, which includes stepping up efforts to achieve sustainable development for all.
Action required includes ensuring respect for human rights, tackling cybercrime more effectively, and advancing gender equality.
The Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Ghada Waly, echoed the Secretary-General’s call for collective global action.
She previewed a report, to be published on Friday, which reveals that organized criminal groups or gangs are responsible for almost a quarter of all homicides worldwide.
The impact of organized crime is also manifesting in alarming new ways, she said, “from shocking forms of violence in European port cities connected with the drug trade, to political assassinations and infiltration of prisons in parts of Latin America.”
She told the Council that criminal networks exploit commercial practices to facilitate their operations. They take measures that include using certain professions, especially in the legal field, to escape justice and exploiting financial structures for money laundering, for example.
These groups have also become “more nimble and decentralized”, and their structures are “less hierarchical, more fragmented, and grouped together into a network of specialists, which deliver services and collaborate amongst themselves,” she said.
Meanwhile, digital markets and cryptocurrencies have facilitated the expansion of illicit transactions, making them more rapid and anonymous.
The costs and risks of engaging in criminal activity have never been lower, and the global threat posed by organized crime has reached new levels of complexity, Ms. Waly told the Council.
“To respond, we need institutions capable of delivering justice and ending impunity, as well as resilient communities,” she said. “And we need to invest far more resources to confront illicit markets that are worth trillions of dollars.”
To help prevent organized crime from flourishing, Ms. Waly outlined how UNODC works to strengthen the rule of law, including by supporting and improving capacities of law enforcement operations. The organization also helps strengthen financial investigations and asset forfeiture networks and develop laws, policies, and institutions centred on integrity and human rights.
As the guardians of the UN Conventions on Organized Crime and Corruption, UNODC harmonizes responses and connects practitioners around the globe to improve international cooperation.
Another key priority for UNODC is fostering prevention and inclusion. Ms. Waly noted that UNODC helps communities find “licit, dignified livelihoods that break cycles of crime and poverty, including in places like Colombia, Afghanistan, and Myanmar, and we work closely with civil society.” UNODC also emphasizes the protection and empowerment of women and girls throughout all organized crime interventions, she added.
Ms. Waly urged the Security Council to support and invest in improved data collection to improve the prediction, monitoring, and response to organized crime and trafficking. She also encouraged the Council to integrate measures against organized crime in peace and security interventions and resolutions. Additionally, she advised the inclusion of organized crime prevention in sustainable development cooperation frameworks, and for the Council to continue devoting its attention to this threat.
“With political will and collective action, we can ensure that organized crime can no longer sustain its business model on instability and fragility,” she concluded.
To read Executive Director Waly's full remarks, click here.