Should the UN be doing more to fight organized crime?

The globalization of organized crime poses a growing threat to fragile states that lack the ability to resist it, putting pressure on the UN to find solutions.

A recently-released report entitled The Elephant in the Room, part of the New York-based International Peace Institute’s Peace Without Crime series, argues that “crime has become a serious threat in almost every theater where the UN has peace operations.” The authors of the report (Walter Kemp, Mark Shaw and Arthur Boutellis) argue that organized crime is eroding the UN’s attempts to bring about peace and stability in the many countries in which it has missions and yet these missions contain very few references to crime.

Criminal groups are one of the biggest beneficiaries of globalization, says Kemp, director for Europe and Central Asia at the IPI. “Over the last 20 years organized crime has gone global. It has reached macro-economic proportions.” Globalization has seen the growth in traffic around the world of just about everything - including contraband, says Kemp. Whereas organized crime was once regarded as a problem pertaining to the developed world, and confined mostly to cities, it has in the last few years rapidly spread its tentacles across the globe, finding new routes and penetrating vulnerable West African states like Guinea Bissau and Mali. “Much of the instability in West Africa is due to the impact of drug-trafficking from Latin America to Europe,” argue the authors.

As contraband is trafficked from one corner of the globe to the other, often moving through several transit countries, national - and even regional - crackdowns may simply shift the problem onto adjacent, potentially more vulnerable countries. Yet should the UN’s peacekeeping forces be tasked with fighting organized crime?

The authors concede that other parts of the UN may be better suited to dealing with the challenge but argue that given that “organized crime is threatening the stability, development and justice that peacekeepers are trying to establish,” peacekeeping forces cannot turn a blind eye.

While organized crime and peace operations “had almost nothing to do with each other” 50 years ago, “at the beginning of the 21st century the trajectories have converged,” they say. As peacekeeping has seen a greater integration between civilian and military aspects, and is as much about building up institutions and states as restoring the rule of law, organized crime has evolved too, “from a localized problem into a pervasive, strategic threat to governments, societies and economies”.

The authors show an overlap of UN peace operations and major crime-affected regions - Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Iraq, Kosovo and Timor-Leste to name a few - and conclude this is because “conflict affected and fragile regions - precisely the places where the UN is most needed - are especially vulnerable to transnational organized crime and provide favorable conditions for its development.”

In the first report in the series, Identifying the Spoilers, they spell out how peacekeepers and other players can identify signs of organized crime in the countries in which they operate. Elephant in the Room, the second report, shows how organized crime has had a destabilizing impact on the political economy of three nations - Guinea-Bissau, Haiti and Kosovo - and finds a “mismatch between the seriousness of the threat posed by organized crime and the UN’s ability to tackle it”.

They argue the limitations of a purely militarist approach - as when the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) countered the gang violence in Haiti. Despite their successes, they have not been able to halt the organized crime networks that still operate in and beyond Haiti’s borders. The third report, due out soon, looks at what the UN and international players can do at a systemic level to address the problem. Up to now, say the authors, “there is not much enthusiasm for the UN to tackle organized crime.”

Crime-and-instability nexus

Crucial to their argument is the notion that there is a “nexus between crime and instability” and that when transnational organized crime funds the activities and thus furthers the political aims of insurgents or rebels or corrupts governments at the highest level, the fall-out can be huge. This occurred in Guinea Bissau, for example, when the president, João Bernardo Vieira, was assassinated in 2009 in alleged drug-related rivalry between political and military officials.

"Good police work is of little use when the courts do not convict or where prisoners are released, and building capacity among corrupt officials can have unintended consequences."

While the quantities of cocaine being trafficked through Guinea-Bissau are relatively small (an estimated 25 tons per year), at around 25 percent of the country’s GNP this is still high enough to corrupt high-level officials and undermine the tiny economy. Other contraband passing through other West African countries such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, DRC, and Cote d’Ivoire - and possibility posing a bigger problem in future - include fuel, timber, people, minerals, diamonds and ivory.

Terrorism versus crime

Shaw, director of Communities, Crime and Conflicts at STATT Consulting, says the focus on the threat posed by terrorism over the past decade has overshadowed the growth of crime networks. “The attention has been on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he says. Even the problem of opium-trafficking in the latter country has been viewed through the prism of the war. But the alarming nexus of organized crime, insurgency and terrorism in Mali has alerted the world to the fact that organized crime can step into the political vacuum in societies in upheaval.

Libya, warns Shaw, may become a haven for organized crime. “There are lots of unemployed young men, established militia and weapons, and the country is at the crossroads of a number of trafficking routes,” he says.

Crime-instability link overstated?

Ted Leggett, a research officer with the UN Office for Drugs and Crime, acknowledges a frequent overlap between organized crime and political instability but believes the connection can be overstated at times. It is important, he says, to make the distinction between the problem of local strongmen and the problem of transnational trafficking. Insurgents or rebels may profit from transnational trafficking - for example the Taliban’s taxing of opium production and trafficking in Afghanistan (earning them US$125 million annually), or militias’ involvement in trafficking minerals in DRC, to advance their wars - but they rarely take charge of the trafficking themselves. “Rather, they provide protection to transnational traffickers, specialists who pay them to operate in the areas that they control. It’s like the relationship between a state and the corporations headquartered within it. The US government does not export Ford autos, but it does tax Ford,” he says.

On the Elephant in the Room’s broader argument, Leggett says: “The idea that peacekeeping missions should help the host states build their capacity to deal with transnational organized crime is a good one but any such intervention would face serious challenges.” It is difficult, he says, for UN Police to recruit the kind of specialized staff required. “Most police peacekeepers are patrol officers from other developing countries” with limited skills and resources. Often, they can’t speak the local language. Given that “dealing with transnational organized crime requires a sophisticated understanding of the local context”, this is highly problematic. Another problem, says Leggett, and as the authors of the report note, is that the security forces are themselves often implicated in trafficking.

He adds: “Good police work is of little use when the courts do not convict or where prisoners are released, and building capacity among corrupt officials can have unintended consequences.”

Embedding crime experts into UN field operations?

The IPI report authors conclude with recommendations on how peace operations can tackle organized crime more effectively. As Shaw notes, “the complexities of illicit trafficking require much more than a law enforcement response.” Pooling information and utilizing regional offices, for example the UN Office for West Africa in Dakar, is key, as is embedding crime experts into UN field operations. Peacekeepers are well-placed to collect information, which must be managed and analysed at a higher level. They may baulk at the notion of intelligence gathering, “(but) as the UN increasingly becomes a target for terrorist attacks, and as UN operations become more exposed to complex situations involving armed groups and criminal networks, there is a growing realization and acceptance that peace operations need to have access to intelligence,” they say.

The development approach

Meanwhile, some argue that the best way vulnerable states - particularly those in conflict and post-conflict situations - can be protected from transnational organized crime is by taking a development approach: in other words, strengthening their economic, civic and government structures.

Graeme Simpson, director of Interpeace USA, which seeks to build social and political cohesion in post-conflict societies, argues that neither law enforcement approaches, nor the peacekeepers, can effectively combat transnational organized crime. “These approaches are addressing the symptoms but not the underlying deficiencies that make countries vulnerable to organized crime,” he says. “Drug cartels and drug-based economies are vibrant and they hold and employ huge numbers of people. Unless we create alternative sustainable economies and legitimate polities in these communities we won’t be able to offer alternative and viable ways for people to survive,” he adds.

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