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U.N. 'Bill of Rights' on Crime

Vienna, June 3 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations has agreed to an international "Bill of Rights" to tackle what it sees as the almost uncontrollable growth in the reach and sophistication of criminal gangs world-wide.

A two-week conference in Vienna on trans-national crime backed a U.S.-proposed declaration to protect the security of international citizens from serious cross-border crimes, such as terrorism, money laundering and trafficking in arms, drugs and people.

The so-called "Bill of Rights" aims not only to commit states to tackle trans-national crime, which has continued to grow at "a seemingly uncontrollable rate," but also allow citizens to act against their own governments in international courts, if authorities failed to enforce the agreement.

The Declaration on Crime and Public Security urges states to refuse safe haven to foreign criminals, and to secure borders against activities such as money laundering, smuggling and passport forgery. The conference took further a U.N. action plan agreed in Naples in 1994 by setting up a central information service on criminal organisations. The Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Division is to give States technical assistance and facts on organised crime.

A draft code of conduct for public officials, providing guidance for States' efforts to combat bribery and corruption, was also approved. Ways to stop violence against women, a draft manual on victims' rights, and the development of an international program of action for juvenile justice were also recommended.

Before the conference, other countries, particularly Eastern European ones such as Belarus, voiced fears that their governments did not have enough money or resources to tackle cross border crime.

Delegates heard how some gangs had joined forces by exploiting the opening up of borders and relaxation of trade barriers. A report before the conference made reference to an increasingly complicated and widespread network of international criminals.

It said, for example, Colombian druglords have teamed up with their Albanian counterparts in southeastern Europe, and that Nigerian drug dealers were just as likely to be caught in Thailand as in Africa.

Criminals use of high technology has also made them harder to catch. U.N. delegates heard how gangs communicated by Internet, using special codes, or encryptions, which are virtually impossible to break. The report says the best - and cheapest - way to tackle the growing reach of crime is to tackle the financial assets of the gangs - that is to stop money laundering. But that depends on the will of member states.

One of those being Austria, ironically the host of the conference.

The recent European Union member has come under fire from the EU itself for Vienna's lax banking systems, which Brussels claims, allow the easy transference of illicit cash. A recent U.S. government report said Austria ranked alongside Thailand, Colombia and Venzuela as a money launderers' paradise. And the report said Austria is now a base for, among others, the Chechen, Russian, Georgian, Italian and Asian Mafia. And that its western European neighbours fear these organisations spreading farther into Europe.

Another solution put forward was greater electronic surveillance. The U.N. report praised Washington for having made major inroads against the Mafia by phone tapping. But even that has its shortcomings. The growing network of gangs meant, in one fraud case, an average of nine different languages - ranging from Chinese to Jamacian patois and Hebrew - used in one conversation. However, such an approach is unlikely to be made in poorer countries, such as the former Soviet States.

The conference was told that Belarusian gangs have successfully removed large amounts of state money from the country under false contracts with foreign banks - all of which the Belarusian government says it has been unable to stop. And attempts to halt links between gangs and banks often result in violent ends. In Nagoya, Japan, the Bor-yo-kudan group assassinated a bank manager in 1994, apparently as a warning to other bank managers not to try to collect overdue loans. The organisation, which has 80,000 members, has moved into the real estate and stock market business with money borrowed from banks. Police and leading economists talk of the Bor-yo-kudan recession when describing present financial difficulties in Japan.

But trans-national criminal actvitiy is not confined to money laundering. Delegates heard how trafficking in drugs, arms, nuclear materials and explosives had all increased.

Also on the agenda was a proposal to set up an international court on the environment to prosecute those whose trans-border activities damage the environemnt. The proposal will be voted on later this year.

Reflecting world-wide concern over the effect official corruption has had on the stability and security on some countries, the conference recommended the adoption of an official code of conduct for public officials.

The U.N. itself came under fire from some members who said it was bogged down in paperwork. Finnish representative Matti Joutsen called for a reduction in reporting procedures by consolidating information, and suggested that the U.N. be prepared to do more listening,rather than asking for the reports which many do not read.

Canada and the U.S. pointed to the need for proposals to be more specific with details of their implementation and cost.