Ian Tennant

Progressive resolutions on the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime’s (UNTOC’s) trafficking in persons and trafficking in firearms protocols give hope for a more holistic and coordinated response to these criminal markets.

The UNTOC Conference of Parties (CoP) has standing agenda items to discuss its three protocols: human trafficking, migrant smuggling and firearms trafficking. But states can go further and table resolutions to call attention to the importance of implementing these instruments, or to raise issues and call for action on addressing the criminal markets concerned. Given the high prevalence and widespread harms of these crimes, it is vital that interested parties pay attention to what states agree through CoP resolutions on these topics, which can sometimes fly under the public radar.

At this year’s UNTOC conference, Colombia and Mexico led the way in tabling texts on trafficking in persons and firearms trafficking – unsurprisingly, as both countries are facing acute crises due to these illicit markets. Colombia focused on human trafficking and Mexico directed its attention towards firearms trafficking. The harm caused by firearms in Mexico cannot be overstated, and equally devastating is the humanitarian tragedy caused by human trafficking and smuggling markets in and through Colombia. These phenomena should not be seen in isolation, however, as convergence between organized criminal markets exacerbates the problems, making them harder to solve.

This article analyzes the resolutions that were agreed to at the CoP regarding these issues. They give reason to be hopeful that states are looking at more holistic and coordinated approaches, beyond just calling for the implementation of existing instruments.

Firearms trafficking

Mexico has played a prominent role in international discussions on firearms trafficking, which is unsurprising given the prevalence of gun violence and organized crime in the country, largely linked to drug cartels. Under the UNTOC, Mexican officials have long held the chairmanship of the UNTOC Working Group on Firearms, which, in 2022, was chaired by Alejandro Celorio, the Mexican Foreign Affairs Ministry’s legal adviser. In this role, Celorio was responsible for the Mexican government’s landmark lawsuit against arms manufacturers. The resolution, tabled by Mexico, is therefore relevant to the latest international developments, as well as the technical discussions that take place within the firearms working group.

Despite the harms caused by firearms trafficking, the firearms protocol is the least widely adhered to under the UNTOC, with just 122 parties – compared with the almost universal ratification of the UNTOC and the trafficking in persons protocol (which has 180 parties). Major countries, including the US, have not ratified the protocol. In this context, the Mexico resolution:

  • Encourages states to sign up, urges existing parties to enhance their implementation efforts, and requests that the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) assist states in doing so. The resolution gives detail on what states need to do to update and harmonize legislation, and address legislative gaps, acknowledging the UNTOC and the protocol as a ‘meaningful basis’ for doing so.
  • Encourages engagement to share best practices and improve implementation, including through consultation with outside expertise, and in the context of the UNTOC’s review mechanism. Firearms trafficking is one of the few specific criminal markets mentioned in the sustainable development goals (SDGs), so the resolution encourages the monitoring of progress against SDG indicator 16.4.2, as well as the collection and dissemination of data on the impact of firearms trafficking on violence (including against women and girls) and market dynamics.
  • Recognizes the varied mandates across the UN on firearms and, consequently, requests that the UNODC cooperate and coordinate with other parts of the UN system and regional instruments. The resolution also encourages states to cooperate with one another, including through INTERPOL.
  • Recognizes the importance of engagement with non-governmental stakeholders, including in the meetings of the UNTOC conference. It urges states to promote their participation in official meetings, encourages NGOs to work with states to promote the implementation of the protocol, and calls upon states to exchange information with civil society regarding new challenges, trends and patterns on this issue.

Compared to previous resolutions adopted at the CoP, the resolution on firearms trafficking shows an awareness of the importance of understanding, analyzing and sharing information on criminal market dynamics and their impacts, as well as the significance of engagement across sectors.

Trafficking in persons

Colombia’s resolution is similar in length and detail to the Mexican resolution, but focuses on the protocol to which most countries have already signed up – trafficking in persons. This resolution is significant, as it addresses a criminal market that the Global Organized Crime Index judges to be the most prevalent in the world, despite widespread adherence to the protocol. The resolution urges those few states that have not yet signed up to do so. However, rather than going into the details of the protocol and how to update legislation, the resolution has a strong focus on research and analysis, social issues and preventative measures:

  • On trends and analysis, the resolution calls upon states to analyze the root causes of trafficking in persons – considering gender, human rights and victims’ issues – focusing on socio-economic factors and encouraging the effectiveness and impact of existing policies. It recommends that states apply data rigorously to measure the prevalence of human trafficking, in order to determine whether preventative programmes are having an effect.
  • The resolution refers to gender-related risks, and how discrimination plays a role in the trafficking in persons. It encourages ‘alliances’ with civil society, and the building of trust between authorities and communities.
  • The resolution calls for a prioritization of victim support and protection, including empowerment and social inclusion to prevent re-victimization.
  • On demand reduction, the resolution mentions supply chain risks, and why states should prioritize initiatives and campaigns focused on these, but without giving detail on the importance of engagement with the private sector.
  • The resolution also contains a section on online trafficking in persons – and it urges states and the UNODC to address this through analysis of emerging trends, by strengthening the digital capacity of states, by improving the ability of states to engage in international cooperation and exchange digital evidence, and by fostering common understanding of the risks of online trafficking.
  • Turning back to the core elements of the protocol and the UNTOC, there are calls to bolster international cooperation and technical assistance, strengthen coordination across governments, and for the UNODC to support these efforts – along with INTERPOL and other partners across the UN.
  • As a concrete outcome, the UNODC is mandated to conduct a study on the effectiveness of existing prevention campaigns, alongside calls for the continuation of its current activities.

In comparison to resolutions that have been adopted at previous UNTOC conferences, these two new resolutions demonstrate a growing understanding of the need to address harms, social issues and human rights, and to understand and properly analyze the dynamics of criminal markets.

Both resolutions go beyond the core mandates of the protocols they address, and demonstrate that the sponsors are eager to call attention to issues of key importance to them through a collection of measures, including enhanced implementation of the provisions of the protocols. Both emphasize the importance of robust data, of evaluating the impact and effectiveness of existing policies, and of engaging with civil society in order to do so. As the UNODC and states follow up on these resolutions, the challenge will be to square these progressive approaches with the slow and restricted process of the UNTOC’s Implementation Review Mechanism.