Transnational Crime & the United Nations

A variation of this essay, "International Tribalism and the Tenth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders," was published in the Other Voices column of the Ann Arbor News in May, 2000.

The mathematician, sociologist, peace theorist, and geopolitical analyst, Johan Galtung, who divides his time between Hawaii, Vienna, and Oslo, has argued essentially that a world of "international feudalism" is a good image for describing the sucessor system to the cold war, once referred to by the elder George Bush as the "new world order." Certainly, this new world order has also been about the "new world disorder." Part of the latter has included the emergence of transnational crime and the globalization of criminal groups who exploit modern-day technology and the increasingly border-free world of international travel and commerce.

Lately, the trend in organized crime, for example, in Korea has been away from physical violence and toward international cooperation with foreign criminal organizations, specializing in drug trafficking and the illegal brokerage business of dealing in the prostitution of women and children. Moving away from such violent crimes as intimidation and blackmailing, and expanding its domain to tax evasion, illegal and legal gambling, extortion in construction bidding, security business, loan-sharking, and so and so forth, Korean organized crime finds itself confronting competition from abroad; both resisting and networking with other organized groups, such as the: Russian Mafia, Chinese Triads, Japanese Yakuza, Thai's Kunsa, Columbia or Afghanistan drug cartels,etc. Korea is symptomatic of the rest of the world's free trade and entrepreneurial development.

Criminal groups--organized and unorganized--today, traffic not only in drugs, weapons, firearms, ammunitions, computers, and cars, but in the forced labor and sexual exploitation of smuggled illegal migrants. Transnational crime also deals in stolen artifacts and endangered species. At the same time, these internationally organized crimes use commercial or pseudo-commercial set-ups and assume influence over politics, the media, public administration, the judiciary, and business in general.

Laundering huge sums of money, corrupting public officials by the 1000s, and endangering economic and financial systems, domestic and international, these organized operations victimize millions of citizens worldwide. Ultimately, transnational crime threatens the national security and social stability of every country, developed or developing, so concluded the Tenth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, held April 10-17, 2000, in Vienna, Austria. In attendance were some 3000 invited persons, myself included, and some 138 nations.

The theme of the 2000 Congress (which meets once every five years in a different nation) was "Crime and Justice: Meeting the Challenges of the Twenty-first Century." In addition to the challenges of transnational and organizational crime already noted, other related items of significant discussion included: (1) promoting rules of law and strengthening criminal justice systems; (2)developing effective crime prevention at the local, regional, and national levels; and (3) providing accountability and fairness in the justice process to both victims and offenders. Some of the "technical" workshops held during the Congress were on such topics as: combatting corruption; virtual and computer crime networking; community involvement in crime prevention; and women in the criminal justice system.

Among the many goals or objectives of the Congress were to discuss and reach agreement on draft protocols for trafficking in firearms, women and children, as well as in the smuggling of migrants. Ultimately, the desire is to implement some kind of uniform and global crime-fighting measures. As the efforts to create and sustain a world consensus on how to proceed against international terrorism have revealed, following the attacks on September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington, D.C., this is a lot easier said than done.

For instance, as Dr. Han-Georg MaaBen, a director from the Federal Ministry of the Interior, Germany, underscored: "Work currently under way in the United Nations to draw up a convention on combating transnational organized crime demonstrates that even though everyone basically knows what organized crime is or can constitute, it is nonetheless difficult to find a legal definition of the term which can be supported by all states. Even in my country...where we endeavour to define virtually all criminal offences, neither our Criminal Code nor the other relevant statutes contain a definition of organized crime."

Although highly frustrating at times, the Crime Congress is a unique global forum where the potential for the exchange and enhancement of innovative ideas remains a distinct, if not, distant possibility, because it brings together representatives of governments, United Nations agencies, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, scholars, experts, practitioners, and the media. As an "expert observer" who could speak, share ideas and position papers, but who could not vote nor even engage the U.S. delegation of bureaucrats (who remained conspicuously silent throughout the meetings, not uttering so much as one public word) from the Justice Department, I found two things particularly frustrating:

First, was the extent to which I found myself participating in what I can best describe as international tribalism or the tendency of the world's cultures to isolate and divide the "global village" into geopolitical polar spheres. Despite the discourse to the contrary and the sincere distain for hate crimes and other expressions of xenophobia, the different peoples of the world with some exceptions remained ethnically, religiously, regionally, and developmentally estranged. In other words, Asians with Asians, Africans with Africans, Europeans with Europeans, South and Central Americans with South and Central Americans, Americans from the U.S. or Canada with the Brits, the Aussies, and the New Zealanders, and so on.

Second, was the extent to which despite all the discussions, exchange of ideas, and disagreements about crime and its control/prevention, there was almost no mention, let alone discussion of, the "causes" or "origins" of crime. Questions of why and explanations for the emerging and changing forms of criminality were rarely broached. And, when they were, they typically occurred in marginal sessions organized and run by non-governmental organizations, or by one or two invited experts from one country or the other piping in with their gems of rigorous analysis. When this happened, questions about crime and its relationship to extreme inequality of goods and services worldwide, and questions about the related needs of global redistribution were usually raised.

But even at the fringes of the Congress, there was far too much silence on the all important topic of free-enterprise, globalization, and its negative impact on crime and crime control. With respect to the high level sessions, attended by ministers and attorney-generals alike, and where a few Heads of State actually stood and addressed the nations of the world as they pledged their governments' commitments to fighting against organizational and transnational crime--in the name of human security and human rights--only one leader from the repressive nation of Sudan, asked the assembled nations a key question pertaining to the development of crime: "Why are we not addressing the problem of why we have the crime we have in the first place?"

In light of these shortcomings and given the substantive realities of the 10th United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, I would strongly urge that future UN Congresses on crime and its prevention, take up the fundamentally thematic issue of transnational crime and the reciprocal relations of "Worldwide Economic Inequality, International Tribalism, and Crime Reduction."