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Breaking the Cycle Between Organized Crime and Violent Conflict

PCDN Global

January 29, 2018

Photo credits: United Nations Justice and Corrections Service 

Monday, January 29, 2018/ By: Tina Luu

Since 2000, more than thirty United Nations Security Council Resolutions and statements have mentioned “organized crime” in all its forms and have highlighted its relationship to violent conflict. Such increase in references demonstrate not only a growing recognition of the linkages between violent conflict and organized crime, but also the extent in which organized crime continues to serve as a direct obstacle to UN efforts aimed at restoring and sustaining peace in conflict emerging countries. [1]

Conflict, especially protracted internal armed conflict, creates conditions for serious and organized crime to thrive[2]. Governance and public security vacuums, which often occur because of enduring conflict, also increases the likelihood of organized crime being perpetrated:

“In the absence of effective and fully functioning institutions to deter criminality and hold perpetrators accountable, criminal networks are likely to flourish, and in some instances, to fill the void by establishing parallel power structures. Even where governmental power structures do exist, government officials and actors may lack the political will to effectively address serious crimes”. (Rausch et al., 6) [3]

The same is true in fragile, post-conflict environments, where organized crime, together with corruption, represents one of the main factors that can undermine a state’s ability to build credible rule of law institutions, achieve political progress, encourage economic growth, consolidate security gains and put in place the conditions for lasting stability.

Given the UN’s prioritization of addressing organized crime as a key component in its overall peace and security architecture[4], several UN offices, including the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the Justice and Corrections Section and the United Nations Police from the DPKO Office of Rule of Law and Security Institutions (OROLSI), and the United States Institute of Peace joined together in a panel discussion hosted by the Permanent Mission of Sweden, “Breaking the Cycle Between Organized Crime and Violent Conflict” in November 2017. This discussion sought to forge a common understanding between different regional and international actors working in conflict-affected contexts – including UN entities and those working in Permanent Missions – of the relationship between organized crime and conflict and its implications in order to identify operational and policy needs required to effectively respond.

Ambassador Irina Schoulgin Nyoni, Deputy Permanent Representative of the Permanent Mission of Sweden and Assistant Secretary General Alexandre Zouev, OROLSI provided introductory remarks, affirming each of their office’s role and support in tackling this critical issue. Ambassador Nyoni highlighted the need to link efforts aimed at combating organized crime with initiatives undertaken within the UN peacebuilding architecture, while placing emphasis on prevention and strengthening rule of law institutions to ensure long-term peace and stability in conflict-emerging settings. Assistant Secretary General Zouev also emphasized prevention and recognized how institutional fragility remains a key driver of conflict, instability, and the flourishment of criminal networks. Strengthening existing UN frameworks and tools, such as the Global Focal Point for Police, Justice and Corrections, as well as fostering sustainable peace initiatives through innovative, flexible and creative responses are essential to confront the increasingly transnational and asymmetric nature of today’s organized criminal networks.

Panelists included: Charles Briefel, Senior Policy Officer, Justice and Corrections Service, Office of Rule of Law and Security Institutions, DPKO; Estela Argudin Pombo, Serious and Organized Crime Team, Mission Management and Support Section, UN Police Division, Office of Rule of Law and Security Institutions, DPKO; Colette Rausch, Associate Vice President, Global Practice and Innovation, USIP; and Issoufou Yacouba, MINUSMA Police Commissioner. The discussion was moderated by Tina Luu, Program Assistant, Global Practice and Innovation, USIP.

Participants in this discussion included representatives from different permanent missions and officials from DPKO, the UN Department of Political Affairs, and INTERPOL. 

The conversation focused on identifying linkages between organized crime, organized criminal networks, and violent conflict; factors needed for long-term impact of international responses; and a reflection of lessons learned and good practices from previous and current interventions in the field. The panel wrapped up with a discussion of broader measures that must be undertaken to help overcome political, security, legal and operational complexities involved in addressing organized crime in conflict and post-conflict settings, followed by a comprehensive question and answer session with attendees.

Below are key takeaways fostered from this discussion:

  • The relationship between organized crime, organized criminal networks, and violent conflict has become increasingly transnational in nature, requiring both a global and tailored, context-specific response. Over the past decade, organized crime has evolved significantly from being primarily locally/ nationally based to that of a global phenomenon, further complicated by increasing linkages found between terrorism and organized crime. This is evidenced by current challenges facing the Sahel, where a variety of local security and terrorism issues – such as the expansion of Boko Haram, who largely benefited from collaboration with illicit trafficking networks in Nigeria - have had spillover effects within the region. Such trends require responses that are at the same time globally minded and able to account for the dynamics of each conflict- context. As such, the involvement of regional actors in crafting such interventions is critical. 
  • To ensure the sustainability of international community responses to organized crime, proper assessments need to be conducted on the root causes and drivers of conflict, and coherent approaches, strategic partnerships, and synergies between UN field and headquarters must be established. The generally limited life-span of peacekeeping operations against the long-term realization of addressing serious and organized crime and corruption remains a pressing challenge for missions conducting interventions. Missions, however, can play an important catalytic role in addressing organized crime with the help of specific, targeted mandates and tools designed to tackle issues in a manner to produce impact and results in the short run. A clearly defined legislative and regulatory framework should also be provided in earlier stages of the mission. 
  • Peacekeeping missions have made a number of strides in supporting host country capacity to fight organized crime, but a variety of institutional, resource, and technical capacity needs remain challenges.

    • In 2013, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) supported the establishment of the Pôle Judiciaire Spécialisé en matière de lutte contre le terrorisme et la criminalité transnationale organisée (PJS) as a specialized national unit designed to respond to threats posed by armed groups and organized criminal groups through the development of specialized investigation and prosecution capacities[5]. However, several challenges remain for the PJS to carry out its work, including a lack of resources, lack of forensic capacities, technical needs to improve its assessment work, such as forensic analysis expertise and a comprehensive database, vastness of the country which calls for a regional unit, and a need for increased cooperation and coordination of members within the G5 Sahel in developing unified approaches and policies to counteract transnational and organized crime. 
  • To most effectively address the linkages between corruption and serious and organized crime, we must understand that UN efforts to combat organized crime are as much political as they are technical. Organized crime cannot be effectively addressed through strengthening law enforcement alone - parallel support is needed to help build prosecutorial and judicial capacity and to put in place the necessary regulatory and institutional framework. UN efforts to combat organized crime are as much political as they are technical. Peace operations play a key function. Their “good offices” role and their capacity to convene and coordinate the support of relevant actors to build and sustain political consensus on rule of law issues such as building specialized national prosecutorial and judicial capacity. This convening role is critical to countering organized crime. The prison system also needs to have the capacity to detain high profile offenders securely. 
    • In Afghanistan, widespread corruption and poor governance have been one of the primary drivers of radicalization, instability, and the growth of organized criminal networks. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), a Special Political Mission, has supported the Afghan government in its efforts to tackle corruption, through the establishment of the Anti-Corruption Justice Centre (ACJC), which is a specialized court and dedicated team of prosecutors.  The ACJC has been operating within the existing judicial structure but focuses on significant anti-corruption cases. Investigations are conducted by the Major Crimes Taskforce and handed over to a dedicated group of prosecutors and specialized judges. The taskforce has authority to investigate governors, ministers, and other high-ranking officials. The ACJC “is designed to enable better coordination among judicial institutions to focus more thoroughly on major corruption crimes among high-ranking officials”[6]. Interventions such as this show both the need for political buy-in in combating organized crime, but also require a long-term investment for sustainable impact.
  • To break the cycle between violent conflict and serious and organized crime, we must take stock and devise technical fixes that account for the entire ecosystem that allows them to thrive, including the drivers of violence, enablers of criminality, and root causes of conflict. Many countries are struggling to counter the effects of violent extremism, terrorism, ethnic and sectarian violence, all of which are often intertwined with organized crime and can act as fuel for violent conflict. Further, a society’s social fabric is often intensely weakened in these contexts: conflict entrepreneurs often sow divisions and stoke grievances between ethnic, religious, and communal groups to foster tension and distrust. As a result, disillusionment with government grows, and violent conflict, serious crimes, and terrorism can flourish.

It is thus equally important for us to identify the spoilers of peace and security, and work with government leaders, civil society and community members who can or are actively working to promote peace and the rule of law. 

As such, five considerations should be accounted for to break the cycle between organized crime and violent conflict:

  1. Embrace the reality that addressing the drivers and consequences of conflict and insecurity requires confronting a series of complex, multidimensional, and often intractable problems. 
  2. Understand the political, economic, cultural, and social context in which the challenges exist before taking action to address violent conflict, organized and serious crimes. 
  3. Understand both the drivers of violent and criminality, as well as the drivers of resilience. What works in a society to strengthen social cohesion? Foster and build upon that.
  4. Take a comprehensive approach, one that is both systemic and holistic and that enables multiple stakeholders to work together to address social, economic, and political challenges and to build justice, security, rule of law and effective governance.[7] This includes combining top down and bottom up engagement, dialogue, and inclusive participation from start to finish. 
  5. Endeavor to take a preventative approach.

[1] Rausch et al., Fighting Serious Crimes: Strategies and Tactics for Conflict-Affected Societies, 1.

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] Ibid., 6.

[4] In the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, countering organized crime is explicitly referenced as a critical target in Goal 16.
(United Nations, Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (The United Nations, 2015)).

[5] https://peacekeeping.un.org/en/justice

[6] https://unama.unmissions.org/new-facility-inaugurated-afghanistan-anti-corruption-justice-centre

[7] In Nepal, for example, after a peace agreement ending a ten-year civil war was signed, the Justice and Security Dialogue program at USIP brought the police and local communities together to build trust, dispel prejudices, and develop joint responses to common concerns. As a result, police-community relationships were improved and a variety of justice, security, and rule of law reforms followed that helped solidify the peace process and prevent violence. (Rausch and Luu, “Inclusive Peace Processes are Key to Ending Violent Conflict,” United States Institute of Peace, Washington DC (May 2017), https://www.usip.org/publications/2017/05/inclusive-peace-processes-are-key-ending-violent-conflict)

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