The 13th Crime Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice in Doha next week will set the tone over the next five years for the way the world confronts crime.
Back in October 2013, rescuers came across a grisly scene in the Sahara desert close to the border between Niger and Algeria. Spread out across a 19 km radius were the bodies of 92 people; most of them women and children. All of them had died of thirst as they sought to escape the punishing sun. The migrant group had been traveling in two trucks, but the first one broke down and the second left for repairs.
The migrants were stranded. After waiting five days, the group struck out to look for water. Only 21 people survived when they managed to reach towns on the Algerian side of the border.
These migrant deaths illustrate a terrible fact about our world. Crime is leeching the life force out of vulnerable and fragile countries, and by doing so, undermining our global efforts to lift billions out of poverty.
Below the Sahara, the territories are infested with criminals who prey on migrants seeking to move to Europe. Women, children and men, whose desire to go to another country is so fierce they are prepared to cross a vast desert with some of the highest daily temperatures on record.
But this story is not unique to North Africa. Across the world, in the biggest migration since World War II, people are in motion. These individuals are undertaking perilous journeys in boats across roaring seas, via treacherous land routes or by air. And they are dying in large numbers.
Many reasons exist for this tragedy. Some people are desperately trying to take families away from brutal conflict and insecurity, others are driven by economic necessity. Migrants then fall into the hands of criminal networks and are cruelly exploited.
Rampant corruption fuels these and other crimes, but it also diverts funds from the public sector, preventing children receiving invaluable education, and much needed health care. It is estimated that public money amounting to between $20 to 40 billion leaves developing countries in the form of corruption.
Opportunistic links between criminals and terrorists, although not new, are also being formed to traffic drugs and other illicit goods.
Forest crime represents up to 30 percent of the global timber trade. The trade in illegal timber from Southeast Asia to the European Union and other parts of Asia was worth an estimated $3.5 billion in 2010. Unregulated trade in charcoal also results in lost revenue of around $1.9 billion from African countries.
Wildlife crime has a huge cost for humans and is worth as much as $2.5 billion in East Asia and the Pacific alone. The destruction of wildlife, causing many species to teeter on the edge of extinction, damages tourism. Trafficking in resources is an ongoing theft from developing nations.
Transnational organized crime is worth an estimated $870 billion annually and comes in many forms. Its violence destroys communities. The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime — UNODC — counted 437,000 homicides globally in 2012. Many of these deaths occur in developing nations where the loss of an income earner can have an irreparable impact on a family’s future.
Views on crime are thankfully changing. The links between crime and development are recognized in ways they were not before. Countries also accept that development can be protected by the rule of law, fundamental human rights, strong but fair criminal justice systems and zero tolerance of corruption.
But to turn back the criminal tide more needs to be done. If the rule of law is to wrestle development out of crime’s clutches, law enforcement must focus on anti-money laundering activities. Greater cooperation also needs to take place to ensure that information on crime is shared and that joint operations across borders takes place.
The international community is currently facing tremendous challenges in the areas of conflict, security and peace. It is also seeking to agree on the new development agenda that will transform the lives of billions.
In all this welcome action, I see a tremendous opportunity to promote criminal justice reform and to strengthen the rule of law — particularly in the areas of fairness, dignity and equality. It is a chance for the world to take the rule of law — and its cousins crime prevention and criminal justice — out from the wings where it has been waiting and place it in the vanguard of the United Nation’s work.
If this is done, sustainable development will receive the protection it needs from crime’s ravages. This coming week sees the start of the 13th Crime Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice in Doha from April 12-19, the largest and most diverse gathering of policymakers and practitioners in the area of crime prevention and criminal justice. It comes ahead of the Summit on Sustainable Development in September when the world will agree on the new development agenda.
Crime causes misery and death. It cannot be allowed to hamper our plans for sustainable development. Along with UNODC, I am committed to using the 13th Crime Congress as the first step not just to improve criminal justice responses, but toward a better quality of life for everyone.
Yury Fedotov is executive director, U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.
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