Rule of law : A "missing" Millennium Development Goal

15 April 2008 - Antonio Maria Costa, head of UNODC, yesterday said the rule of law was not only a goal in itself but a means to achieving all eight Millennium Development Goals.  Addressing the 17th session of the United Nations Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice in Vienna, he said there was a clear correlation between weak rule of law and weak socio-economic performance.  As a result, the "bottom billion" of the world's poorest people were suffering the most from the effects of crime and corruption. Mr. Costa inivited the Commission to impart more vigour to its work before the mid-term review of the Goals set in 2000.

Here is a full text of his speech:

Mr Chairman,


Ladies and Gentlemen,

 How (hypocritically) contradictory humanity is: sickened by crime, but also fascinated by it. An entire genre of films, literature, music and video games have glamorized gangsters, terrorists and psycho-killers. Media reports have sensationalized violence in urban ghettos, or in the badlands of failing regions.

  A "missing" development goal

These benign portrayals forget the hundreds of thousands of people affected by crime on a daily basis - victims, their lives endangered; cities and regions, held hostage by thugs; the economy of nations, threatened with destruction.

 Not surprisingly, in so many surveys crime has emerged as the threat people fear the most -- more than war, terrorism, hunger, unemployment, or climate change:  a sobering thought for this Commission, which is the world's prime crime-fighting policy maker.

 Of course, we separate the micro- from the macro-consequences of crime. (i) Conventional crime, that has a direct impact on individuals, is in the jurisdiction of states.  Organized crime is linked to drug trafficking, corruption, money-laundering, even conflicts and terrorism. These threats can not be tackled by a nation state alone. They require a multi-lateral response -- this Commission's jurisdiction. Yet, I feel we are not ready today to meet the challenge.

  First, while there is plenty of information about conventional crime, we don't know much about organized crime. Thousands of books have been written about the subject, none with robust evidence about the size, shape and trends of organized crime, its impact on society, its relations with business and politics.

  Second, while the criminal economy is estimated at several percentage points of the world's gross product (that is about $30 trillions), this is anecdotal: in reality, we really have no idea even how to measure it.

  Third, even if we could estimate the revenue crime generates, its true impact (its opportunity cost, as economists would say) would be much higher, because crime creates instability that hampers development, in a vicious circle that breeds conflicts, mass poverty and environmental degradation.

There is a particular reason why I have decided to raise this issue today: because the time has come to recognize that crime is hurting the welfare of nations and the realization of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

There was a time when I felt saddened that the United Nations did not include justice and stability, namely the rule of law, among the MDGs. Today I feel this exclusion was for a good reason: because the rule of law is not only a goal in itself, it is also a means. It is a cross-cutting issue, the foundation upon which most other MDGs can be built.  This point is easy to prove.

Economic analysis has consistently shown the clear correlation between weak rule of law and weak socio-economic performance. Clear correlation, I said, though some people actually see strong causality: in countries ravaged by crime and corruption, and where governments lost control of their land, the poor suffer the most, and the services provided to them get delayed, or never arrive. They -- the so-called "bottom billion" -- have no access to justice, health and education and face rising food prices: how can such countries meet the MDGs?

Poorly governed countries are the most vulnerable to crime, and pay the highest price in terms of erosion of social and human capital, loss of domestic savings, reduction of foreign investment, white-collar exodus, increased instability, and faltering democracy. Seen in this light, the rule of law takes on a whole new importance: when established, l'etat de droit can unleash the welfare potentials of nations. When it's lacking, underdevelopment perpetuates itself.

I invite this Commission to impart new momentum to its crime control work first, by contributing to the mid-term review of MDGs (scheduled at the General Assembly in September 2008) and second, by undertaking measures so as to facilitate the realization of the MDGs in the next half period (2008-2015).    While this is what we should do, allow me to ask:  are we ready to do it?

Unfinished business

Last year I stated that the (legal) architecture of the crime control regime has solid cornerstones, including: 

the UN Convention against Organized Crime and its three Protocols;

the UN Convention against Corruption;

the 16 UN universal conventions and protocols relating to terrorism;

and UN Standards and Norms in crime prevention and criminal justice. 

At the same time, however, I also pointed out that the system lacked blue-prints, data, and a verification mechanism: without these, I fear, the final construction will resemble the Tower of Babel more than the Parthenon or the Taj Mahal.

I therefore, urge you all to make effective use of your deliberations this week, and of the two forthcoming Conferences of Parties (2008-09) so that the crime control legal instruments you agreed upon, right here in Vienna in the first half of this decade, make a real difference in people's lives.

The matrix

To see how this works in practice, let's look at the matrix of UNODC operations.

(i) Growing activity in Africa

I am proud of the rapidly growing UNODC portfolio of projects in Africa, fighting corruption (in Nigeria), reforming prisons (in Sudan), combating human trafficking (in Eastern Africa) and drug trafficking (in West Africa), or assisting the victims of crime (in Southern Africa). Across the continent, we are building capacity to combat money laundering and the financing of terrorism, and improve judicial systems. These initiatives are based on the report on Crime and Development in Africa, later turned into a Programme of Action (agreed to at a Ministerial round table in Abuja) and now the basis of the African Union's Plan of Action on drug control and crime prevention (adopted last December.)

We have also been Africa 's advocate in strategic terms. A couple of years ago UNODC warned that Africa was being attacked by international mafias, trafficking cocaine from the West and heroin from the East.  The world was slow to respond: as a result, the situation has deteriorated, in some cases to the verge of collapse. Last December UNODC briefed the UN Security Council of the threat posed by drug trafficking into and through West Africa: the response was very loaded with results.  Together with the government of Guinea-Bissau we developed an Operational Plan, now under implementation.

Today we see a bigger threat: the two attacks against Africa (from the West and the East) have converged: across the Sahara, trafficking of drugs, arms, and people has become a source of funding for thugs - but also for rebels, anti-government forces and terrorists. In the coming months UNODC will issue a report on the situation, to alert the world and to promote technical assistance. I'm glad that ministers of 12 countries in the region are attending this Commission, together with ECOWAS and SRSG officials. We look forward to hearing from them about their needs and their assessment of the situation.

(ii) Bridge-heads in Central America and the Caribbean

The report on Crime and Development in the Caribbean, co-produced with the World Bank, was the focus of a CARICOM Ministerial Conference in Trinidad and Tobago last week. A regional plan of action is under consideration. Ministers strongly endorsed the report's basic premise:  less crime means more growth and stability. To illustrate the point, according to the report, Haiti and Jamaica could double their annual economic growth if they could bring their crime rates down to Costa Rica's level. UNODC intends to step up its engagement in the Caribbean and calls on donors for support. 

Central America is caught in a similar cross-fire between the world's major producers and consumers of cocaine, and related crime. Based on our report on Crime and Development in Central America, UNODC is working with the Sistema de la Integracion Centroamerica (SICA) to support the region's Strategy for Security, to reduce the effects of crime on development.

(iii) Stability in the Balkans

In the 1990s, the Balkans were trapped in a vicious circle of instability and crime. In its latest report, UNODC shows that this spiral was broken in recent years, though not uniformly or throughout the region. Technical assistance, not least in fighting corruption, can enhance recent progress and foster integration with the rest of Europe.  The resulting greater stability will reduce crime even further.

Ladies and Gentlemen, this gives you a sense of some of the regions where UNODC is active in strengthening the rule of law. Regarding thematic activities,   here is where we stand:

(iv) Corruption as the hindrance to MDGs

Integrity in governance is crucial for security and justice, and for the attainment of the MDGs. Around the world, we are helping states to strengthen anti-corruption agencies, to criminalize corrupt behaviour and build the capacity needed to recover stolen assets. We are stepping up anti-corruption work in conflict areas (Afghanistan and Iraq).

We have also launched jointly with the World Bank the Stolen Asset Recovery (StAR) Initiative, to help states build capacity to collect and use the information needed to get back what was stolen by kleptocrats.

(v) Terrorism

The rule of law is the basis for preventing and fighting terrorism. That is why, over the past five years, UNODC has trained more than 6,000 officials in more than 150 countries to strengthen the legal regime against terrorism.

(vi) UN.GIFT and anti-human trafficking

Over one year ago we launched an anti-human trafficking initiative, innovative both in substance and in its execution.  UN.GIFT has become a world-renowned brand, raising great awareness and expectations. Following the Vienna Forum, UN.GIFT is gearing up to provide technical assistance in the three areas of the Protocol: prevention, prosecution and protection. I invite you all to contribute to the thematic debate on human trafficking, at the General Assembly this June.

(vii) Violence against women

UNODC, with the generous support of the European Commission, has launched a major victim-empowerment project in South Africa, to address especially the violence directed at women and children. This is important work in its own right: it will also help achieve one of the most important MDGs, namely empowering women. 

In the thematic discussion this week, I urge you to pay special attention to violence against civilians in conflict and post-conflict situations. UNODC attaches a high priority to training police and judges in post-war reconstruction, to ensure that criminal justice protects society's most vulnerable members in particular. 

New areas of work

Ladies and Gentlemen, I have listed examples of regions and themes that make up the UNODC operational matrix. Yet, since crime evolves quickly, we must also deal with emerging threats.    Here are new areas under consideration.

(i) Cities out of control

With half of the world's population living in urban centres (at times bigger than most UN Member States), we must better understand the threat posed by cities, or neighbourhoods, out of control, because of crime, drugs and terrorism. There are lessons to be learned, and measures that can be put in place to build safer habitats. This goal deserves more attention in itself, and as a way of reaching a key MDG.   

(ii) Fire-arms and irregular migration

The protocols on (i) firearms and on (ii) the smuggling of migrants are not living up to their potential. (i) Merchants of death generate huge revenues by trafficking weapons that fuel conflicts, are the cause of mass killings and other crimes (like drug trafficking and terrorism). The relevant Protocol has only 72 Parties and we face limited means to deliver technical assistance. Another stain on our conscience is (ii) the smuggling of migrants. Every year criminals exploit waves of desperate human beings attempting to reach the shores of richer neighbours: and yet the Protocol sits gathering dust.

(iii) Green crimes and global warming

People are profiting from the destruction of our planet, by dumping hazardous waste, illegal logging, or the theft of bio-assets. This crime not only damages the eco-system, it impoverishes so many countries where pollution, deforestation and population displacement trigger conflict and prevent reaching the MDGs. 

(iv) Theft of the identity of people, ideas and brands

The theft of credit cards, passports, and personal information is part of a bigger problem: the theft of intellectual property, counterfeiting, and copyright violations - particularly of luxury and entertainment goods. We need to act on the basis of a resolution taken by this Commission last year and work more closely with the private sector and labour unions in order to address this growing menace. 

A systemic approach

The matrix of themes and theatres, old and new, is a useful way of organizing our thoughts and our operations, and for mapping out future work. Our three pronged approach (evidence → policy → assistance) helps us put the rule of law into action. I wish to stress one final element: all of this is based on a systemic approach that you endorsed last year. 

Following this Commission's guidance, UNODC ad hoc projects are being replaced by programmatic activities. We continue to break down institutional walls between drugs, crime and terrorism, and take a comprehensive approach to building security and justice. I urge you to do the same in terms of UNODC's governance structure, based on the decision on governance and financing taken by the CND three weeks ago. 

The United Nations is strengthening system-wide coherence through the "One UN" concept. UNODC's main contribution is to strengthen the rule-of-law component of development assistance - both to increase aid effectiveness, and to ensure that socio-economic growth is based on, and benefits, from a sound legal and institutional framework.   

I also insist on the importance of mobilizing society as a whole. The criminal underworld is all around us, wherever there is vulnerability to exploit, and illicit profit to make. Therefore schools, the places of work, religious groups, the media, the film and the entertainment industry all have a role to play in combating organized crime. Most of all we need to curb demand for illicit goods and services that are the incentive for criminal activity - whether trafficked people, drugs, weapons, forest products, rare species, cigarettes, or precious metals.

This message was successfully conveyed at the Vienna Forum on human trafficking, and the Conference of States Parties in Bali. I would like to do the same during this Crime Commission, the UNGASS review, the Conferences of Parties, and the Crime Congress in 2010. Let's open our doors and our minds to involve all those who want to build a safer and more just world. 

A wish, a fear, and a hope

Ladies and gentlemen, I conclude with a wish, a fear and a hope.

My wish is to help you make policy evidence-based. If we can measure national income, inflation and the weather, surely we should be able to measure crime and its trends. I appeal to researchers and governments to help us.

My fear is that time is not on our side. The longer we wait for action, the deeper crime infiltrates societies and create dangerous clusters of drugs, crime and terrorism with a global impact. And the more remote the MDGs become.

Nevertheless, I conclude with a hope: that we successfully confront those who act outside the law, with the rule of law and thus build just, secure and prosperous societies.

Thank you for you attention.