Case Study

United Nations and international crime

The role of the UN with regards to transnational crime originated in efforts to coordinate action against the trade in narcotics before evolving into activities dealing with other realms of global criminal activity. The UN took over the management of the League of Nations work on tackling the narcotics trade, as it did with many functional agencies established by its forerunner. The League’s well documented failures with regards to military security should not obscure its pioneering work in developing global responses to other great threats to humanity. The League’s Committee on the Traffic in Opium and Other Dangerous Drugs was transformed into the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) but the UN soon expanded its role and the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs created a sister organisation to the CND, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB). This signalled an attempt by the UN to deepen the global response to an increasingly politically contentious issue, but the further creation of various groups and programmes over the next three decades served to confuse the picture and prompt a rationalisation, in line with other structural changes to the UN, at the close of the Cold War.

A special session of the UN General Assembly in 1990 recognised the growing threat posed by narcotics and instigated the creation of a single programme to replace the ‘alphabet soup’ of small UN groups that had developed in this policy area. The UN International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) started operations in 1991 to coordinate UN policy, with the CND and INCB taken under its wings as committees. A further rationalisation of UN operations occurred in 1997 when the UNDCP married its operations to a new body, the UN Centre for International Crime Prevention (CICP) as subsections of the UN Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC). This step marked a recognition by the UN of the growing significance of a range of transnational criminal operations first evident in the sponsorship of a major conference in Naples in 1994 attended by government ministers from 136 states.

The CICP did not appear from nowhere but it represented a greatly souped up version of its predecessor the UN Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Division (CPCJD). The CICP is very much the junior partner within the UNODC, with a permanent staff of fifteen compared to over 300 in the UNDCP. It is, however, assisted by a separate forty-man body, The Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice (CCPCJ), which is a subsidiary of the Economic and Social Council, the UN’s chief steering mechanism for developing global policy on non-military issues.  The CCPCJ cooperates with pressure groups, academics and politicians in organising Congresses which produce draft resolutions which direct the CICP in its work of defining ‘internationally recognised principles for criminal justice’.

The culmination of the work of these congresses, and a Global Action Plan initiated by the 1994 Naples Conference, was the UN International Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime was adopted by the General Assembly in November 2000 and entered into force in 2003. Article 1 of the Convention succinctly describes its purpose as ‘to promote cooperation to prevent and combat transnational organised crime more effectively’. Subsequent articles of the convention deal with a wide range of issues relating to transnational organised crime.

A ‘Conference of the Parties’ has met regularly since 2003 to oversee the implementation and development of the Convention. The Convention is a step forward in terms of providing the basis for greater international harmonisation in tackling money laundering and corruption but, as with most intergovernmental arrangements of this kind, there are no enforcement measures beyond peer pressure. The compulsory sharing of information amongst parties, for example is cited as a necessary next step by the UNODC.

Territorial land disputes in the Arctic

There is only one territorial dispute in the Arctic region and it could lay claim to being the world’s most obscure and least belligerent sovereign ‘conflicts’. Hans Island, a tiny islet located between Greenland and Ellesmere Island and smaller than many of the icebergs that float through the Nares Strait, has been claimed by both Denmark and Canada for the past thirty years. An amicable equidistant division of the Seas between Greenland and Canada in 1973 neglected even to factor in a 1.3 km sq. rocky protrusion bisected by the line. In the preceding years, however, the Danish and Canadian governments have both gradually built up claims to the islet with military and ministerial visits and flag planting exercises, prompting increased media interest in both countries. Part of Copenhagen’s claim centres on the fact that it was discovered in 1853 by Greenlandic explorer Hans Hendrik, after whom the islet is named. Ottawa have pointed out that Canadians have previously inhabited the rocky knoll. Both claims are correct but ultimately weak. Hendrik was actually part of a US Arctic expedition and a Canadian Scientific station lasted for only a few years during the Second World War. Whilst the sovereign claims have largely been expressed in a light-hearted manner, critics have lamented the expensive posturing and suggested that both parties either split the islet or rule it as a condominium.