Saturday, July 11, 2009

United Nations Press Conference to Announce Launch of West Africa Coast Initiative


With its porous borders and slack security making West Africa an easy target for criminal networks smuggling cocaine, guns, cigarettes and other illegal goods, the head of the United Nations anti-crime agency announced today a joint initiative that would integrate the expertise of regional actors with the global reach of INTERPOL (International Criminal Police Organization) to tackle the threats posed by organized crime in the subregion.

At a Headquarters press conference ahead of today’s launch of the West Africa Coast Initiative, Antonio Maria Costa, Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), said the strategy built on the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Plan of Action aimed at strengthening national capacities and cross-border cooperation to tackle the organized crime and drug trafficking undermining peace and development in the fragile subregion.

Accompanying Mr. Costa were representatives of the Initiative’s other key partners, including Said Djinnit, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for West Africa and Head of the United Nations Office for West Africa (UNOWA); Andrew Hughes, Police Adviser in the Department for Peacekeeping Operations; and Harper Boucher, Special Representative of INTERPOL to the United Nations.

Mr. Costa, who is also Director-General of the United Nations Office in Vienna, said the multi-agency Initiative established the existence of a real threat and set the parameters under which the partnership would address it. To start with, the Initiative would focus on illicit trafficking in post-conflict countries ‑‑ Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire ‑‑ and perhaps later in Guinea. It would cover law enforcement, intelligence gathering, border management and corruption, among other areas.

Responding to questions, he acknowledged that there had been fewer drugs flowing into Europe from West Africa over the past year or so but pointed out that organized criminal networks were threatening the subregion through illicit trafficking in small arms, cigarettes, toxic waste and human beings. UNODC’s just-released threat assessment on West Africa also listed the trafficking of counterfeit medicines, oil and other natural resources.

As for the rise of organized crime in West Africa, he said that, beyond the region’s weak institutional and judicial frameworks, perhaps the global financial crises were offering criminal networks a “unique opportunity”. Indeed, avenues shut off as a result of anti-corruption mechanisms set up in the late 1990s and the implementation of measures to monitor terrorist financing after 11 September 2001 were now opening up again because banks and other institutions desperately needed cash, which criminal networks had in great supply.

Mr. Djinnit, who joined Mr. Costa in briefing the Security Council on the situation in West Africa yesterday, said the Secretary-General’s latest report acknowledged the great strides taken towards consolidating peace, democracy and good governance in the subregion. Yet it was still fragile because the root causes of those problems, including poverty, political instability and high unemployment, remained.

While the impact of those ills was exacerbated by the recent resurgence of unconstitutional changes of Government in the subregion, UNOWA was especially troubled by the rise in organized crime and drug trafficking, he said. The Office had been playing an important role in sensitizing the region, including at the leadership level, to the impact that such widespread criminal activity could have on security and stability.

Mr. Hughes continued in that vein, describing organized crime as “a major spoiler” of peacebuilding and peacekeeping efforts in West Africa and citing the Department of Peacekeeping Operations’ experience, which showed that the best way to combat criminal networks was to use equally organized anti-crime networks. To that end, the joint West Africa Coast Initiative would develop specialized transnational crime units to carry out and coordinate action on the ground across the subregion. They would be headed by local law-enforcement agents and include police, customs officials and immigration officers. They would all be vetted by United Nations police and mentored by international experts. “So this is going to be regionally coordinated and internationally mentored, but locally owned,” he said, emphasizing that local ownership had been shown to have a tremendous effect on reigning in and ultimately stamping out criminal networks.

Mr. Boucher said INTERPOL was prepared to assist by, among other ways, providing expertise in such key areas as global communication networks and criminal database services, as well as training and providing operational support for investigations. While mechanisms were in place to address some security threats, they would need to be greatly enhanced if the countries of West Africa were to keep up a sustained fight against transnational organized crime.

In responding to other questions, Mr. Costa said that, while the drop in cocaine trafficking had caught many by surprise, it was due to several well-known factors, chiefly that stakeholders across the globe were becoming more aware illegal drugs were fuelling criminal networks and undercutting legitimate institutions in an already fragile region. Meanwhile, the global cocaine market was in a “state of flux” due mainly to the falling production and cultivation in Colombia. Also, consumption had declined significantly in key markets, especially North America.

He said UNODC had seen some countries institute marginally better border controls, and air and sea route monitors, as well as measures to deter corruption, warning, however, that traffickers always sought the path of least resistance. There were indications that they were moving their enterprises further south along Africa’s Atlantic coast, and even to remote areas of the Balkans, for the shipment of illegal goods to Europe.

Mr. Costa acknowledged that, while UNODC had always received great financial support and cooperation from the European Union, even greater commitment was needed from the bloc to help stem the tide of drugs by staunching demand, thorough effective law enforcement or other means. The European Union was the origin of a number of other tragedies playing out in West Africa, especially the environmental and health risks posed by the dumping and “storing” of Europe’s toxic and e-waste ‑‑ 8.7 million tons of old computers, mobile phones and the like annually ‑‑ in some West African countries, often with the complicity of their leaders.

He said UNODC was not in the business of “naming and shaming” specific leaders, but a chapter of the threat assessment report highlighted the smuggling of oil ‑‑ a legal commodity ‑‑ as one of the greatest threats to the rule of law in West Africa. Oil theft, or “bunkering”, in the Niger Delta was a key driver of pollution, as well as instability, and UNODC would provide technical assistance to address it.

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