Posted on 14 Jun 2018
International policing must gear up to tackle the challenge of organized crime as a major transnational threat to peace and stability, otherwise the many-headed beast will continue to thrive.
During my five years as the police adviser to the UN, the UN Police did a lot to raise awareness about the importance of fighting transnational organized crime within the broader context of peace and security, as evidenced by two groundbreaking resolutions in 2014 and 2017. The message is simple: for conflict prevention, and for peacebuilding efforts to be successful, the relevance of organized crime must be understood, its threats identified and vulnerabilities mitigated.
In contemporary conflict environments, actors who are not party to ceasefire processes or peace agreements may threaten such efforts towards stability. Many belong to a nexus that links transnational organized crime, violent extremism and international terrorism. Organized crime takes advantage of conflict and war to counter law-enforcement efforts, while extremism and international terrorism use organized crime as a business model. Thus, efforts aimed at re-establishing governance are attacked by criminals and violent extremists. This is a menace for countries shaken by conflict, as peace depends on legitimate governance in which all communities find their space.
The consequences of transnational organized crime – such as trafficking in human beings, forms of exploitation and slavery, and trafficking in weapons or narcotics – may also contribute to the current global rise of nationalism and populism. And, more recently, peace operations have become a target themselves.
Organized crime and violent extremism not only weaken existing governance, they also establish their own governance systems. Islamic State is a case in point, being an extremist ideology that has imposed an entire bureaucratic, public-services and tax system. The organization also uses criminal enterprise to generate revenue, much of it transnational. Hence it can be difficult to distinguish between individuals and networks representing ‘classical’ transnational organized crime and violent extremists who benefit from it.
Diplomatic and military efforts are limited or rendered toothless given the complex nature of the organized-crime threat. Individual states and the international community struggle against a faceless, multidimensional and highly secretive enemy. Unlike Islamic State, which exploits a sophisticated media machine, transnational organized crime has no public voice; instead, it thrives on deception, bringing to mind the many-headed Hydra of Greek mythology, which proved almost impossible to slay.
When faced with this sort of complex challenge, the authorities often resort to efforts of disruption. But every experienced law-enforcement officer knows that disruption can never be more than a temporary alternative to the real objective: permanently disbanding the network. Multinational organizations need long-term strategies – something that tends not to come naturally to political processes. And neither foreign ministries nor military forces have experts on transnational organized crime, crime prevention, community-oriented policing or intelligence collection within a civilian legal framework. Responding to organized crime in complex settings requires careful, thoughtful engagement, capable of sustaining a long-term effort. Policing expertise is essential. However, this sort of expertise has often played second fiddle to military responses, often with negative consequences.
Transnational organized crime is like a highly complex technological system that functions through an untold number of connections and nodes. Similarly, responding to it, much like operating a complicated piece of machinery, necessitates a detailed understanding of how the system works, otherwise there is a risk of further destabilization and thriving illicit activity.
Strengthening the peacekeeping/law enforcement response to organized crime
In June 2016, ministers of the interior, chiefs of police and other high-level officials from more than 100 member states gathered at the UN headquarters for the first-ever summit of UN police chiefs. Participants called for the need to tackle transnational organized crime and deploy more specialist expertise – based on specific capacity gaps within national institutions and priorities requested by host states. They encouraged stronger partnerships between the UN Police, the African Union, the European Union, INTERPOL, EUROPOL, the emerging AFRIPOL, AMERIPOL, ASEANAPOL, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the International Association of Chiefs of Police and other partner organizations. In June 2018, the UN will host the second UN Chiefs of Police Summit, which will aim to take stock and move forward on organized crime.
Meanwhile, Secretary General António Guterres argues that the future of peacekeeping operations is linked to UN Police and that more investment in this area will be essential. The same sentiment can be found in the 2016 European Union Global Strategy. The EU is working on getting EUROPOL closer to crisis management missions of the EU abroad. The recognition that experts on transnational organized crime need to be provided to support actions within a foreign-policy context is slowly growing, although I don’t see this reflected in national police budgets.
Between 2014 and 2016, the UN also finalized the policy of the Strategic Guidance Framework (SGF). This long-standing, worldwide effort, supported by a global network of law-enforcement professionals, enhances the effectiveness of the UN Police in peace operations. Mapping out the interdependency of community-oriented policing and intelligence-led policing is but one of many examples of how the SGF tackles the challenges presented by transnational threats, including that of organized crime. The SGF has become an internationally acknowledged reference point for how to strengthen host states’ law-enforcement capacities and capabilities, giving international policing a first-ever framework. Meanwhile, the establishment of a Serious and Organized Crime Team in the UN Police Division, and the creation of an entire network of focal points on transnational organized crime are examples of efforts to translate the SGF framework into practice.
Such efforts are key to an effective global response to a global threat. But there is no space for complacency. We need to be seriously concerned. We are witnessing the erosion of a willingness to think globally in the face of global challenges and threats, in an environment where no local event can be separated from the global, and vice versa – often with unforeseen consequences. But populism thrives on the pretence that there are easy solutions to the world’s problems and that those who say otherwise are merchants of ‘fake news’. Nationalist sentiment rolls back global and regional achievements, and presents a threat to more integration. And, at the extreme end of the scale, a new wave of fascist movements are intent on destroying what has been achieved by liberal societies, including the rule of law. I know of no examples in contemporary history where such assaults on the rule of law and increasing patterns of authoritarianism have not led to greater levels of organized crime and corruption.
Impressive steps have been made in bringing about a truly global approach to international policing. But these achievements can easily be wiped out. New and resolute thinking is now needed to prevent organized crime from benefiting from the erosion of the rule of law. We have to better acknowledge the complex effects of transnational crime on conflict and war; we have to acknowledge that inadequate efforts to deal with conflict, or to help rebuild post-conflict settings, nurture transnational crime’s ability to thrive.
Ultimately, fighting crime is a civilian core function within society. As the Global Initiative advocates, networks can only be fought by networks – in this case, networks of law-enforcement and criminal-justice organizations. In states and regions already weakened by conflict and war, transnational crime thrives and domestic law-enforcement partner organizations struggle. Whether through outright assistance or temporary international involvement, we have to help our partners from the outset. It requires our active commitment not only with diplomats and soldiers, but also with police and justice expertise. And it requires doing things together, including with national and international law-enforcement agencies.