Johannesburg, South Africa. October 23, 1997

The UN moves
in on crime

South Africa is by no means alone among Third World countries with a rampant crime problem. A small UN body aims to help developing countries fight crime -- but right now its biggest problem is the powerful US gun lobby. SENTHIL RATNASABAPATHY reports

Away from the glare of keeping the peace of global hot spots, the United Nations has been quietly helping developing countries tackle a more festering violence - crime - that may cripple economies if allowed to grow.

The world body combats crime not by policing but by helping build countries' capacities to set up fair and efficient penal and judicial systems. It also seeks to deal with the long-term, underlying social causes of crime, such as unemployment and poverty.

It does this through two key organisations - a 40-member intergovernmental commission and its Vienna-based secretariat, the Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Division (CPCJD). In addition, there are a number of regional UN centres and institutes involved in the task.

The Vienna-based unit is one of the smallest of UN bodies, with a bi-annual budget of only five million dollars and a staff of 20 - not the ideal situation to be in, given the scale of the task. But even that, evidently, is not small enough for some industrialised countries, who made an abortive bid earlier this year at enforcing a 30 percent cut.

Its low status can make it less effective, as was evident in the CPCJD's recent attempt at forging a global view on firearms. The National Rifle Association, a powerful American gun lobby enjoying right-wing support, was able to spend more on a globetrotting expert to counter the CPCJD than the Division's total budget for its own survey. "They spent more money and got more data trying to prove it is the not the guns but the people who do the killing," a senior UN official said.

However, the UN clearly has a significant role to play in combating global crime. Though an ancient affliction, crime in the 20th century is intensive and dangerous. Today, it not only means theft and assault, but also rampant corruption, which can impose formidable costs on economic development. In addition, modern communications and technology have created new kinds of crime, like money laundering.

The last UN Survey on Crime Trends, published in 1990, says crime has been increasing at the rate of five percent a year - almost on par with economic development and faster than population growth. The number of recorded crimes rose from 330 million in 1975 to around half a billion by 1990; assaults from 150 per 100,000 people in 1970 to 400 per 100,000 two decades later.

More crimes means more people in jails: in 1980, there were 1.1 million people in detention worldwide. And with the CPCJD predicting a doubling of crime rate - from 4,000 per 100,000 people in 1985 to 8,000 per 100,000 in the year 2000 - there will be many more jails to fill.

Criminologists say some of the major underlying reasons for crime are urbanisation, poverty and unemployment, which tend to go hand in hand. As cities grow rapidly, governments are often unable to provide enough jobs and other facilities, like education and housing, to the people pouring in from villages. Growing poverty, along with the anonymity provided by burgeoning cities and towns, are ideal grounds for crime to flourish.

In the 'Economies in Transition' of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, another reason for exploding crime is political and economic liberalisation, as crime groups exploit the vacuum and chaos left by the collapse of centralised systems, according to CPCJD officials.=20

A recent report by the Russian Council for Foreign and Defence Policy claimed there are more than 3,000 groups in Russia alone engaged in laundering money. Figures vary, but a senior German police official recently claimed that organised crime groups earned a staggering 5.6 trillion dollars globally in 1991, half of it from trafficking in drugs.

With such huge amounts of money involved, crime is thought to be closely linked to the economic development of poor countries. Although the links between development, poverty and crime remain unquantified, there is evidence - such as in South Africa - that high levels of crime deter investment and development work in developing countries. "The failure to keep crime to a minimum costs cities and countries dear," the UN says.


Crime imposes two kinds of costs: of theft, corruption and money laundering on the one hand and of fighting and preventing crime on the other. The costs on poorer countries are often higher: while developed countries spend two to three percent of their budgets on crime prevention and criminal justice, developing countries spend 9-14 percent. Similarly, affluent countries maintain an average 225 police officers for every 100,000 population, to developing countries' 500 per 100,000.

To assist developing countries overcome such hurdles, the UN over the years has prepared some 20 crime-related guidelines and model treaties, including on the treatment of prisoners and administration of juvenile justice, as well as a code of conduct for law enforcement officials.

But officials know that just setting global standards and guidelines is not enough as long as countries do not have the resources and the know-how to implement them. "The UN may have succeeded in setting global guidelines, but its success can be measured only if they are also implemented and in this regard, the UN cannot claim success," says one Vienna-based source who has monitored the scene for years.

CPCJD officials admit that not all countries have been applying the guidelines fully, but say they were never meant to be uniformly and fully implemented by everybody in the first place. On the other hand, without the guidelines, improvements in standards may be all the more difficult to achieve. "Governments compare the UN guidelines with their own, and undertake improvements if necessary," an official said.

The CPCJD's current focus is on increasing technical cooperation with developing countries, says Mohamed E Abdul-Aziz, its senior crime prevention and criminal justice officer. It has prepared a list of projects aimed at building local capacity to reform criminal justice -- Pana/Misa, October 23, 1997.