from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

How to Attack Transnational Crime

July 9, 2012

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Over the past two decades, as the world economy has globalized, so has its illicit counterpart. Criminal groups have appropriated new technologies, adapted horizontal network structures that are difficult to trace and combat, and diversified their activities. International trafficking in drugs, people, and illicit weapons, as well as cyber crime and money laundering have risen to unprecedented levels.

CFR’s new Global Governance Monitor: Transnational Crime, tracks the international community’s response to this growing scourge.

By definition, transnational crime crosses borders—and increasingly hopscotches across multiple sovereign frontiers and even continents. But efforts to combat it remain corralled within national borders. Existing international legal frameworks focus too little on combating corruption and do not effectively address the market that underpins transnational crime globally. The current regime suffers from critical normative gaps, and lacks sensible strategies where norms exist. The UN Convention Against Transnational Crime is the central international framework governing crime, but it has not been implemented faithfully. The primary global institutions responsible for coordinating multilateral anticrime efforts, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and Interpol, remain grossly underfunded. Bilateral programs like Plan Colombia and the Mérida Initiative channel significant funds toward the effort, but the aid is overwhelmingly targeted at military cooperation, interdiction, eradication, and prosecution, rather than more comprehensive solutions.

The Monitor provides six recommendations to improve international frameworks to fight transnational organized crime:

1) Improve data with a trust fund for independent research

All estimates of the magnitude of transnational crime are necessarily approximations; criminals obviously do not report their annual earnings or scope of activities, and published estimates are often politicized or rely on shaky data (PDF).

The United States and its partners require more reliable data on transnational crime to appropriately allocate resources where they will achieve maximum impact—and reduce spending on ineffective programs. To accomplish this, the United States should work with likeminded governments to establish a UNODC trust fund to improve data collection on a range of transnational criminal issues. UNODC currently compiles global statistics on drugs, human trafficking, and corruption, but accurate figures are hard to come by, given limited in-country resources, manipulation of data, and low levels of participation from local institutions. The envisioned trust fund could be used to build technical expertise among local staff that collects and analyzes data, and create a mechanism for ongoing training (as noted in a report by the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs). A model for this sort of effective data analysis is the "crime observatories" program, managed by the International Center for the Prevention of Crime.

2) Draw on lessons from antiterrorism efforts

The U.S. experience fighting global terrorist networks since 9/11 can provide important lessons on how to weaken transnational organized criminal groups. The United States should work with international partners to apply successful initiatives from the counterterrorism regime, such as the systems of joint threat analysis and international and public-private relationships, and apply these to the transnational crime threat. The U.S. government has already taken some steps to apply counterterror strategies to anticrime efforts, for instance by applying sanctions against criminal networks that resembled sanctions on al-Qaeda. It should push for broader international cooperation to reinforce the impact of these national initiatives.

3) Bolster anti–money laundering regulations

The IMF and World Bank estimate that between $2 and $3 trillion is laundered each year. But worldwide, only $170 million is detected and stopped annually. There are a number of areas where the U.S. government could work more closely with the financial sector to crack down on money laundering and address its linkage with political corruption. Positive steps would include closer global scrutiny of the banking practices of public officials, as well as new partnerships with foreign governments to develop more effective supervision of informal remittance networks and money transfer systems.

Furthermore, current anti–money laundering standards in the United States require banks to know their customers. But evidence of significant illicit transactions suggests that these regulations need to be implemented more faithfully. The United States should also work more assiduously with international partners to clamp down on the use of offshore tax havens by U.S. corporations or individuals, since such havens are often used to launder the proceeds of illicit trade.

4) Streamline U.S. government anticrime capacity building

The United States should streamline existing capacity-building efforts, which are currently scattered across numerous domestic and international agencies. Currently, the U.S. Department of State bureaus of international narcotics and law and counterterrorism, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the National Institute for Justice, and Department of Defense—in addition to an array of international programs—all conduct operations to bolster the ability of developing countries to fight transnational crime. But these agency-led programs are often uncoordinated. Building on the 2011 Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime, the U.S. government should compile a database mapping its own government-wide efforts to counter transnational crime across regions and issue areas, and use the results to improve coordination and reduce duplication of efforts.

5) Support evidence-based drug policy

The United States should support an evidence-based approach to tackling illicit drugs—and end its inflexible commitment to prohibition regimes that prioritize supply reduction over analysis of pricing incentives, strategies for cutting demand, and harm reduction programs. Generally speaking, global prohibition regimes perversely inflate the price of illegal drugs, creating tremendous market incentives for people to produce and transport these forbidden commodities. Studies of alternative anti-drug policies have often proved not only successful in tempering incentives to sell illicit drugs, but have also not resulted in increased drug use. At times, these policies have actually decreased violence more successfully than law enforcement interventions. These were the conclusions of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, whose nineteen members included a former U.S. secretary of state and former U.S. chairman of the Federal Reserve, and four former heads of state. The U.S. government must engage in a more open debate about policies to manage drug abuse.

6) Combat criminal impunity

In countries with fractured judicial systems, weak rule of law, or widespread corruption, violent criminal organizations operate with impunity. The United States and its international partners should explore the possibility of setting up a complementary, international judicial framework that could prosecute criminals if local judicial systems are deemed incapable of holding a fair trial. The UN should revisit relevant early debates about the International Criminal Court (ICC), which some originally proposed should also try drug traffickers. Beyond prosecuting egregious violent crime under the mandate of the ICC, other measures to combat impunity could include establishing a distinct body to try such cases, or setting up hybrid international-national courts.

These policy recommendations reflect the views of Stewart Patrick, director of the International Institutions and Global Governance program, and James Cockayne, codirector of the Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation.

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