28 October 2020 –
Commemorating the 20th anniversary of the signing of the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC), the 10th session of the Conference of Parties (CoP) to the UNTOC was held from 12-16 October 2020 in Vienna. In addition to 121 States Parties, 101 observers, including many CSOs, participated in the conference, which is considered the main global forum for tackling issues of transnational organized crime. The UNCAC Coalition participated in the conference to explore how corruption acts as a strong enabler of transnational organized crime. The UNTOC itself addresses this interlinkage directly, requiring States Parties to criminalize acts of corruption of public officials (Article 8 of the UNTOC), as well as to consider taking measures against corruption (Article 9 of the UNTOC).
Launching the UNTOC review mechanism – lessons learned from the UNCAC?
Seven CoP resolutions were adopted by the conference, most notably, a resolution launching the review process of the Mechanism for the Review of the Implementation of the UNTOC and its three protocols. An agreement on the establishment of an UNTOC review mechanism was achieved two years ago, successfully concluding 10 years of intergovernmental negotiations.
The UNTOC review mechanism resembles the review mechanism of the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) in many aspects, pairing two reviewing countries with one country to be reviewed, as well as dividing the review process into phases and cycles. Another rather unfortunate similarity to the UNCAC review mechanism is the role envisioned for civil society, which will not be able to participate in the working groups of the CoP. Instead, a so-called “constructive dialogue” may take place after the conclusion of each UNTOC working group session, whereas civil society will be updated on developments regarding the review mechanism and will have the chance to formally deliberate with States Parties.
Additionally, a new and comprehensive online toolkit aimed at strengthening the capacity of non-governmental stakeholders to contribute to and become involved in the implementation and review process of the UNTOC was presented at the conference. In the second phase of this project, relevant CSOs combatting organized crime will be able to open an account on an online platform and interact with each other. With this effort, UNODC aims to provide a structured way to encourage civil society involvement in the review process.
It remains to be seen whether and how civil society will be able to make meaningful contributions to the Review Process, in particular in cases where the countries under review do not support and facilitate civil society contributions.
Corruption and crime on the rise in times of COVID- 19
The conference called upon States Parties to effectively address the links between transnational organized crime, corruption, and economic crime, such as money-laundering, as well as to apply a “follow-the-money” approach, using financial investigative tools. It also discussed the increasing risks stemming from the COVID- 19 pandemic and its socioeconomic implications. In this context, a very timely resolution on “Preventing and Combatting the Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Falsified Medical Products“ was adopted, urging States Parties to criminalize related corruption and the laundering of proceeds of crime associated with this type of crime.
The conference also adopted a resolution on combatting environmental crime, indicating that “crimes that affect the environment have become one of the most lucrative transnational criminal activities, often closely interlinked with different forms of crimes and corruption, and that money laundering and the illicit financial flows derived from it may contribute to the financing of other transnational organized crimes and terrorism“. INTERPOL and UNEP’s latest report show that environmental crimes are worth up to USD 258 billion annually, making it the fourth most lucrative crime after drug trafficking, counterfeit, and trafficking in persons.
Another form of crime that is on the rise is the trafficking of wildlife, which is also deeply rooted in corruption. UNODC’s World Wildlife Crime report highlights that corruption, bribes, and the issuing of fraudulent documents fuel this type of crime. Bribes, for example, can make up 4-10% of the final sales value of ivory in Asia. The illicit income stemming from the ivory trade was estimated at USD 400 million annually between 2016 and 2018.
In an IACA side event discussing the risk of transnational financial crimes during and post Covid-19 pandemic, experts elaborated on the increase of financial crimes in cyberspace, including money laundering, as well as on the risk of exploitation of government funds and international development assistance related to COVID-19 relief. It was also mentioned that in the long run, the current situation will have consequences for the financial and business sector, since companies, especially small and medium-sized companies that are suffering from the financial crisis, will have limited resources to invest in compliance and integrity programs. Increased activities related to fraud are also predicted since criminal groups will look to compensate for their financial losses during the slowdown caused by COVID-19.
Shrinking civic space at the UN in Vienna
Attempts to restrict civil society participation in the UN is not at all a new phenomenon. As observed during the last UNCAC CoSP in Abu Dhabi in December 2019, this worrying trend continued during the UNTOC CoP. In this case, Turkey expressed its objection to the participation of four CSOs, including ARTICLE 19, a well-established global NGO working on advancing freedom of expression and engagement in public life without fear of discrimination which has been an UNCAC Coalition member (a representative of the organization, David Banisar, recently served as Vice-Chair and Chair of the Coalition). Two of these objections were made well after the deadline for submitting such objections. All four objected organizations hold UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) consultative status that automatically grants them observer status in ECOSOC-related conferences, without requiring a conference decision. Turkey, which has been attempting to limit civil society’s effective participation in Vienna UN fora in the past year, accused these CSOs of “supporting criminal groups and terrorist organizations acting against the country”. Several States Parties, including Japan, Canada, Chile, Germany, and Norway, spoke in favor of broad civil society participation, making clear that they will not consider joining a consensus decision to exclude these CSOs. In its follow-up intervention on the matter, the Turkish Permanent Representative to the UN said that “at this point, Turkey will not ask to vote on the subject, but will follow up on this matter, as it is of utmost importance to the country.” In addition, the participation of another CSO, Libyan Transparency Association, was objected by a State Party that did not identify itself. According to the rules of procedure, since the objected organization does not hold an ECOSOC consultative status, it was not invited to participate in the conference.
These dynamics are problematic, as they add legitimacy to positions of countries seeking to limit civic space and silence criticism with regards to combatting organized crime and corruption. The UNCAC Coalition, which strongly advocates for the widest possible participation of CSOs in UN processes related to corruption, will continue to follow these developments, especially in light of the upcoming UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) in New York and the 9th UNCAC CoSP in Egypt taking place next year.