Often hidden in the shadows, Transnational Organized Crime (TOC) represents the darker side of global governance. Forced to contain the threat on the ground, UN peace missions are shedding crucial light on how to deal with TOC’s power to spoil peace.
By Albert Souza Mulli for ISN Insights
Transnational Organized Crime (TOC) is gaining attention as a potential peace spoiler in post-conflict environments. As a vital player in post-conflict settings from Haiti to Sierra Leone to Kosovo, the UN has failed to adopt a comprehensive and coherent strategy for combating TOC and its negative effects in these fragile environments, forcing UN peace missions on the ground to autonomously deploy ad hoc and uncoordinated countermeasures, which often prove inadequate to deal with the threat at hand.
Spoiling the peace
According to the UN, TOC refers to a set of actors who seek financial benefit by committing acts considered to be criminal both nationally and internationally. These acts may include drug and human trafficking, kidnapping and money laundering. John Wagley, a foreign affairs expert at the US Congressional Research Service, explains, “Transnational organized crime tends to develop in nations where law enforcement institutions are weak and citizens have limited economic alternatives. Farmers frequently turn to drug cultivation, boosting the international narcotics trade. Unemployed citizens seek work abroad and fall victim to people-trafficking rings. Across the globe, government corruption and illicit trade fuel and sustain each other.”
TOC thrives when state institutions are weakened or completely collapsed during conflict, making it easy to entrench in the country’s political economy. Regional organized crime networks take advantage of the power vacuums created during conflict to forge local partnerships. Apart from recruiting members from the poor and disenfranchised sectors of the population, TOC also creates connections with political elites seeking to reap economic and political benefit from their involvement in illicit activities.
In fact, the corruption of political elites is crucial for TOC operatives to continue their activities unhindered, avoiding criminal prosecution and undermining the state’s authority. TOC players may also seek to insert their partners in the local government. Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), argues that “the profits of crime, and the threat or use of force, enable criminals to influence elections, politicians and power – even the military.” This was the case in Kosovo where members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, involved in drug and arms smuggling during the conflict, were designated as policemen and even elected to public office afterward. These individuals, in turn, continued to exercise their roles in TOC, using their newfound political power and influence to facilitate or ensure state complicity with TOC activities.
Letting soldiers do police work
Traditional UN peacekeeping has expanded to more integrated efforts seeking to pave the way for long-term peace-building. UN peacekeeping missions are now mandated to not only provide security, but also build viable state institutions, promote long-term economic development and establish the rule of law.
When the UN becomes an active player during or after a conflict, it seeks to achieve peace by reinstating the monopoly of violence and the rule of law into the hands of a centralized state, making structural challenges to this project a potential threat to peace. Striving to maintain a status quo where the state is weak, TOC stands in stark opposition to peace-building, threatening the viability of establishing the rule of law. Consequently, UN missions, predominantly military in nature, are often unqualified and ill-prepared to deal with the operational challenges posed by TOC, a criminal, not military, problem. The usual resort to strictly force-based military tactics should give way to more investigative and intelligence-based police work. The UN’s experience in Kosovo can serve as a benchmark for designing future mandates and missions.
Kosovo was the first and, so far, only UN peace mission to clearly identify, prevent and disrupt organized crime. Although the fight against organized crime per se was not among the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo’s (UNMIK) initial priorities, expert Radoslava Stefanova argues that “Kosovo can be considered a test case for measuring the UN’s capacity to enact the rule of law in a difficult post-conflict environment.” Indeed, in 2002, TOC became one of mission’s main foci with the creation of the Kosovo Organized Crime Bureau (KOCB). Primarily, the KOCB carried out actual investigations, allowing NATO troops to use the intelligence gathered to disrupt trafficking networks and arrest those involved. Moreover, it helped Kosovo’s legislature pass legislation for the prosecution of actors participating in TOC and sought to build the capacity of the Kosovo Police Service to carry out investigations. This was supplemented by the creation of the Office of Anticorruption in 2003, which investigated and set out to reform corrupted state institutions. Eventually, all these efforts were successfully integrated into Kosovo’s Department of Organized Crime, thus creating the basis for a transfer of expertise and responsibilities from international to local authorities.
Haiti, a traditional transshipment hub for drugs coming from Colombia to the United States, was also quickly flagged as a site where TOC could play a peace-spoiling role. However, unlike UNMIK, the UN Mission for the Stabilization of Haiti (MINUSTAH), established in 2004, did not create a specific police office focused on tackling TOC. MINUSTAH did, however, create an innovative set of tactics to tackle organized crime, more specifically the gangs operating in Haiti’s urban slums. By employing innovative human intelligence-gathering tactics, MINUSTAH was able to use precise information to disrupt and arrest gang leaders. Nonetheless, these tactics continued to rely ultimately on military, rather than more in-depth police-led investigative and prosecutorial, solutions. Arresting hundreds of gang members since 2007, MINUSTAH’s aggressive military approach to clearing gangs from the slums has led to human rights violations spawned from the unintended deaths of civilians caught in the urban crossfire. However, Michael Dziedzic and Robert Perito of the US Institute of Peace, argue that “despite the casualties and material losses, 97 percent of respondents believed that the UN crackdown on the gangs was justified.” This explains the drastic improvement of public support of MINUSTAH and the UN after 2007.
The tragic earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010 brought a drastic halt to the progress achieved toward implementing the rule of law and ridding Haiti of the influence of drug gangs. Many of the close-to-5,000 prisoners that escaped the central prison in Port-au-Prince in the aftermath of the hurricane were leaders and members of organized criminal gangs. Apart from creating a joint task force with the Haitian Ministry of Justice to re-arrest escaped prisoners – an operation that has proved successful – MINUSTAH has also reached out to the Dominican Republic to cooperate in securing the borders and helping train the Haitian National Police in how to better lead investigations. These measures demonstrate a laudable level of responsiveness and innovative thinking by both MINUSTAH and the Haitian government, but the ad hoc nature of these measures cannot be overlooked. Although MINUSTAH has indeed adopted innovative ad hoc measures to combat TOC, even with the earthquake and its setbacks, the UN’s failure to transfer lessons learned in Kosovo to Haiti demonstrates the lack of a coherent and unified institutional framework specifically geared at helping peace missions combat TOC.
By following the example of the UN Peacebuilding Commission, the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations should, together with the UN Office on Drugs and Crimes and INTERPOL, formulate a flexible, easily-adaptable and comprehensive cross-agency strategy to deal with the issue. This would include deploying peacekeeping missions with more investigative police units specialized in fighting organized crime, securing borders, quickly reforming the judicial system and creating a federal police capable of combating corruption. Undoubtedly, the UN’s operational experience in Kosovo and Haiti can, and should, serve as a valuable starting-point for such developments. However, guaranteeing a more long-term peace will also demand a concerted focus on implementing social and economic programs that create disincentives for citizens and former warriors to participate in TOC.
Albert Souza Mulli works for the Kofi Annan Foundation in Geneva, Switzerland. He holds a Master in International Affairs from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva. He formerly worked as an ISN intern. Published by International Relations and Security Network (ISN)