Rejuvenating the Palermo Convention

As representatives from more than 100 UN member states gear up for the Fifth Conference of the States Party to the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime in Vienna, one wonders whether the gathering will be another anti-climax or will see delegates heed the plea by Antonio Maria Costa, the former executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Costa urged states to focus on delivery, instead of using the occasion as a “license to debate endlessly.”

The purpose of the October 18th-22nd conference is to improve the capacity of states to combat transnational organized crime and to promote and review the implementation of the convention, commonly known as the Palermo Convention. Neither of these objectives appears to have been met at the four previous conferences held since 2000.

The Palermo Convention is consequently limping along, firing on three of its four cylinders, while transnational organized crime has expanded aggressively and has been elevated into a global security threat.

Costa’s frustration with the lack of commitment by some member states burst into the open shortly before he vacated his position in June this year to make way for his successor, Yuri Fedotov, a former Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs.

“Benign neglect” of the Palermo Convention is what Costa accused UN member states of when addressing a high-level meeting in the General Assembly in June. By this past February, one third of UN member states had still not ratified the convention, including, he noted, “some major countries.” These parting shots by Costa reflected the frustrations of a CEO who had been thwarted in his attempts to realize all his objectives––in this case, the effective implementation of the Palermo Convention, which could have become a major weapon against transnational organized crime.

One of the fundamental assumptions underlying the 2000 adoption of the Palermo Convention was that, once substantively ratified and implemented, it would constitute a potent mechanism to counter transnational organized crime. That is certainly what the states who negotiated the convention hoped for and believed would happen when they signed off on it.

However, the realities of organized crime have turned out to be more creative and aggressive than the drafters could have anticipated. Ten years later, following a period of rapid globalization, Costa’s analysis that “crime has internationalized faster than law enforcement and world governance” accurately reflects the reality. Will the participants at the Vienna Conference reflect on this?

For the ten years since the adoption of the Palermo Convention and its three protocols, representatives of member states and others (including the author) have made repetitive calls and promoted numerous resolutions, declarations, and statements at conference after conference, calling for the ratification of the convention, improved international cooperation, etc., while outside in the real world, criminal networks were adapting, becoming more sophisticated, expanding their reach, ignoring borders, and in general conducting themselves as though the Palermo Convention did not exist.

The legal framework presented by the convention needs to be complemented by effective global political strategies that take account of the evolving nature of transnational organized crime and the changed global environment in which these criminal networks now operate. The use of criminal justice tools to combat transnational organized crime are, on their own, no longer adequate. A more strategic approach, involving additional tools and role players, and based on greater synergy with other strategies that address international security challenges, needs to be developed. This is what the Vienna Conference should consider.

At the high-level meeting on transnational organized crime held in the General Assembly in June 2010, the Norwegian representative, State Secretary Erik Lahnstein, wisely called for the Palermo Convention to be developed further and suggested that one means of achieving this would be to focus on the proceeds of crime and how they are integrated into the financial system. This is the type of proposal that should be acted upon.

There are other areas that require attention and further examination, including

  • organized crime in armed conflict and in postconflict situations;
  • international law enforcement collaboration in investigating transnational organized crime;
  • transnational organized crime, illicit economies, and underdevelopment;
  • transnational organized crime and terrorism;
  • cybercrime and organized crime;
  • transnational organized crime and illicit trade; and
  • piracy and criminal networks.

New and creative thinking is required because the Palermo Convention as it stands is no longer an adequate tool to effectively counter transnational organized crime. It is in essence a legal framework that aims to facilitate international cooperation in the fight against transnational organized crime.

Thinking that breaks out of institutional silos is needed. An opportunity to make a start presents itself in Vienna from October 18 to 22, 2010.