After so much talking and political engagement, the failure to achieve a review mechanism for the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime is potentially a major blow to its future. Add to that political resistance in a changing global context of organized crime, and it looks increasingly unlikely that the convention can be effectively reinvigorated.

At its adoption by the UN General Assembly in 2000, there was little doubt that the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC) – or the Palermo Convention, as it is known – was a major achievement of international cooperation. Confronting the complex issue of organized crime was no minor feat, particularly given that, at the time, it was not widely seen as falling within the UN’s traditional ambit of state-centric security.

The convention was pushed forward as a result of the proactive work of a few states, in particular Italy. The assassination in 1992 of Giovanni Falcone, an anti-mafia prosecuting magistrate and judge (the 25th anniversary of which was recently observed at the General Assembly), galvanized the international community’s efforts and drove forward the adoption of the convention (signed, symbolically, in Palermo, home of the Sicilian mafia).

However, as with any convention, its success lies in its implementation, not its adoption. In the years since its adoption, the coherent vision that originally underpinned the convention and international efforts to counter organized crime have sadly been lost. More broadly, multilateral response to organized crime (across UN bodies and throughout the international community) has been slow and disjointed, led by a fragmentary UN system of governance where mandates are often duplicated across different structures.

Implementation of the convention has become bogged down in technicalities, first and foremost the struggle to develop a functional review mechanism. As detailed previously on UNTOC Watch, opinion on this issue is sharply divided between countries and there is little indication of an imminent resolution. An enormous amount of diplomatic energy has gone into these discussions, without any clear outcome. Despite the importance of the topic, there has been little publicity of these efforts.

Of course, achieving a review mechanism is no end in itself, but it would at least provide a set of activities within the wider landscape of progress on UNTOC and a focus on its implementation. As things stand, there is little concrete understanding of how the convention is being implemented globally. Without an effective system of review, the convention may shrink into irrelevance with no pressure imposed on states through checks on what they have done to meet its provisions.


Political resistance impeding the convention

But why have the vision and drive behind UNTOC been lost? Contrary to what hair-splitting over technicalities such as the review mechanism might suggest, the issue is not technical or process-based, but, arguably, political. The obfuscating technical debates serve as a proxy for broader, more contentious issues, which the diplomats often prefer to leave unspoken.

First, some UN states are sceptical about seeing organized crime (and, by extension, law enforcement and justice systems) as a peace and security issue. These areas are often inextricably linked with ideas of state sovereignty, and are consequently seen as outside the remit of international organizations. Greater international oversight, through implementation of UNTOC and its review processes, is seen as an unacceptable level of UN interference. This is effectively a walk back on the original intent of the convention, despite the now regular appearance of the term ‘organized crime’ in Security Council resolutions, among others.

Secondly, since the post-Cold War consensus, which enabled global states parties to come together and negotiate UNTOC, the nature of transnational organized crime has changed beyond all recognition. As the world economy has globalized, so has its illicit counterpart economy. Organized crime now reaches into all parts of the globe and into many international markets where vulnerabilities may be exploited. To take one example of such change, when UNTOC was first signed the term ‘organized crime’ was not often used in application to Africa. Today, the continent is understood as playing a major role in the global illicit economy.

At the same time, new challenges posed by organized crime have arisen, such as the exploitation of modern technology for criminal enterprise and growing interconnections between organized crime, terrorism and conflict. As a 2010 report from the International Peace Institute argues, if organized crime might once have been conceptualized as hierarchical mafia-style organizations dominating criminal markets, this is now a thing of the past. The way contemporary crime works is far more fluid and dynamic. The dramatic increase in Security Council resolutions relating to forms of organized crime demonstrates its pressing importance as a threat to global stability.

The slowly evolving convention has not kept pace with this changing reality. Moreover, thanks to the growing influence of organized crime in international markets, the increasing consideration of the issue in debates on international security, and its ever-growing impact on political processes around the world, it is now a far more geopolitically contentious problem than when UNTOC was first negotiated. Finding consensus among states parties at political loggerheads with one another in order to drive implementation of UNTOC has become increasingly difficult

Then, there is also the thorny question of links between organized-crime groups and states parties themselves. That’s a tough one to understand, let alone broach as part of negotiations, but it is an issue that cannot be disregarded. Suffice to say that the struggle to implement UNTOC reflects how the convention has fallen foul of the broader political-economic trends of which transnational organized crime is today part. Particularly evident here is the clear drive to exclude independent views of state response and complicity. On the ground, that is reflected in the closing space in which civil society finds itself operating in many countries and the degree to which independent journalists reporting on organized crime have come under threat in many countries, including in previously safe spaces, such as the European Union, as the recent assassinations of journalists in Malta and Slovakia attest.

Although the convention may have its problems, it remains the major legislative instrument through which to counter organized crime and a vital resource for building a more coherent international approach. However, it will remain relevant only to the extent to which it is implemented. A frank discussion of the issues that are really at stake rather than cynical obstruction over technicalities – in other words, calling a spade a spade – is needed to reinvigorate the convention’s original vision.