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SC CALLS FOR SYSTEM-WIDE UN ACTION TO COMBAT TRANSNATIONAL CRIME IN WEST AFRICA

New York, 21 February 2012 - Strongly concerned by the impact of transnational organized crime on West Africa and the Sahel region, including the corruption and indiscriminate violence often associated with it, the Security Council today called for system-wide United Nations action to help combat the spread of illicit weapons and drug trafficking, piracy and terrorist activity in a cross-section of fragile countries already struggling to overcome the consequences of years of civil war and instability.

Le Secrétaire général demande un soutien fort des organisations régionales et, plus largement, de la communauté internationale au lancement de cette action

Concluding a ministerial-level debate chaired by Faure Essozimna Gnassingbé, President of Togo, which holds the Council’s presidency for the month, the 15-nation body adopted a statement (SC/PRST/2012/2) expressing “serious concern” about the threats posed by transnational organized crime in West Africa and the Sahel region, and stressing that such threats undermined governance, social and economic development and stability, created difficulties in the delivery of humanitarian assistance, and threatened to reverse peacebuilding advances.

The Council also expressed concern about the increasing violence perpetrated by armed groups, exacerbated by the spread of weapons from within and outside the region, and it welcomed regional initiatives such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Convention on Small Arms and Light Weapons.  Encouraging coordination of the activities of the United Nations and its Member States, the Council encouraged international long-term capacity-building and commended in that regard the important work of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Further by its statement, the Council commended the leaders of West African and Sahelian countries for the important national and regional measures they had adopted to tackle transnational organized crime.  It urged regional States to extend their support to the African Union Plan of Action on Drug Control and Crime Prevention (2007-2012) and to renew the ECOWAS action plan on illicit trafficking, organized crime and drug use.  In addition, it requested the Secretary-General to provide specific recommendations on how the Council could deal with the question of organized crime, including trafficking, in West Africa and the Sahel.

Speaking in his national capacity, President Gnassingbé said security in West Africa and the Sahel was tenuous, especially as piracy and terrorism were becoming increasingly prevalent. He said that the confluence of those trends with ongoing transnational criminal activity had made the region susceptible to trafficking of all kinds.  Further, countries emerging from conflict often had to cope with high levels of poverty, making them easy prey for outside criminal networks.  Worse, the struggle against the combined ills was siphoning off vitally necessary intellectual, human and financial resources, which should be devoted to development.

While pleased the Security Council and the wider United Nations were not indifferent to threats to peace and security in West Africa and the Sahel, he said that due to the scope of the problem “our States need more help, both material and financial,” to combat often heavily armed criminal groups that have focused on our region.  Calling for consistent, common and coordinated strategies in that regard, he also said that the major way the global community could contribute would be to seriously consider setting up an international contact group on transnational crime, similar to that on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia.  “We should not allow organized crime to destabilize West Africa and the Sahel,” he said, cautioning that failure to act would undermine hard fought development gains.

In his opening remarks, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said organized crime, drug trafficking and piracy were on the rise in the region and that last year’s upheaval in Libya had sparked an influx of weapons.  Fears were mounting that the situation could worsen further still for millions of people due to a growing food crisis rooted in drought, high food prices and conflict.  “There is even fear that we could see in this region a crisis of the magnitude of the one in the Horn of Africa,” he warned, urging:  “We must not allow this to happen”.

Further, as West Africa remained a transit point for drug traffickers between South America and Europe, the potential for instability would continue to grow and seriously challenge the peace operations in the region authorized by the Council.  To address the issue, the United Nations, he said, was working closely with the authorities in Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia and Sierra Leone in the context of the West African Coast Initiative, and it had begun to build Transnational Organized Crime Units trained by the United Nations Police.

Next drawing the Council’s attention to reported terrorist activity in the Sahel, Mr. Ban said the assessment mission he dispatched in December 2011 to look at the effects of the Libya crisis there had found that groups such as Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb had begun to form alliances with drug traffickers and other criminal syndicates.  Such alliances had the potential to further destabilize the region and reverse hard-won democratic and peacebuilding achievements.

Since the consequences of inaction could be catastrophic, the United Nations was already deeply engaged in helping the countries of West Africa and the Sahel combat crime, drug trafficking, piracy and terror.  “We have seen this toxic brew in other regions, in Africa and elsewhere.  We must now be ready to do even more to keep the situation from escalating,” he said, adding that the warnings were there; the trends clear.  “We have a responsibility to cooperate even more closely with Member States, as well as with regional and international organizations.”  The common goal must be to ensure durable peace and stability in West Africa and the Sahel.

Echoing the Secretary-General’s strong concern, UNODC Executive Director Yury Fedotov said the West African transit route, which fed the European cocaine market, was now thought to generate some $900 million a year.  South American drug cartels were exploiting regional vulnerabilities in West Africa:  poverty, unemployment, lack of border control, weakness of law enforcement structures, and endemic corruption.  For those criminals, he said, West Africa represented not only the shortest, but also the most cost-effective, channel for trafficking illicit drugs to Europe.

Yet, he said, drugs and increasing incidents of piracy were not West Africa’s only concern:  trafficking in human beings, arms, and counterfeit medicines had also been reported; the smuggling of migrants and other illegal activities were growing.  In the face of those transnational issues, UNODC’s approach had been strategic and tactical.  It represented a multidimensional effort that acknowledged the multifaceted nature of the challenges.  Its approach recognized that, while the problems in West Africa were local in nature, the solutions were often global.

He cautioned, however, that international efforts would be ineffective if they were not based on a clear understanding of the nature and scope of existing challenges.  A new threat assessment in the region was being undertaken by his Office.  To be completed soon, it would be focused on the trafficking routes across the Atlantic Ocean.  He stressed the need for continued political commitment and commended the countries in the region for the efforts being undertaken to combat the threats.  However, additional resources were needed to sustain reforms in the long-term and contribute to security-sector reform.

Among the nearly 40 delegations who participated in the day-long debate, most speakers urged comprehensive and coordinated action to break the backs of well-funded, tech-savvy and opportunistic criminal networks taking advantage of weak institutions and porous borders in West Africa and the Sahel.  Diplomats from the region called specifically for the Security Council and the wider international community to help them identify and root out terrorist groups, such as Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, allegedly involved in trafficking and other illegal activities throughout the region, and Boko Harem, which had allegedly carried out deadly attacks in northern Nigeria.

Many speakers believed that violent activity from armed groups in the region had been exacerbated by the proliferation of weapons smuggled out of Libya after the fall of Muammar al-Qadhafi.  While the representative of the United States said her Government was providing some $40 million to help Libya recover and secure stockpiles and components, including man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS), Alexander Zmeevskiy, Special Envoy of the President of Russian Federation said that pressing concerns about the “leak” of such dangerous weapons into the Sahel region had led his country’s delegation to press for the adoption of Security Council resolution 2017 (2011), which established the responsibility of the new Libyan authorities to take the necessary steps to prevent proliferation of portable surface-to-air missiles, chemical weapons stockpiles and other small arms.

Francisco Caetano Jose Madeira, Special Representative of the Chairperson of the African Union Commission for Counter-Terrorism Cooperation, said failure to comprehensively, effectively, and collectively address the threats posed by transnational organized crime and terrorism in West Africa and the Sahel region put at risk the very foundations of viable democratic States continent wide.  In recent years, he said, the concerned regions, and the continent as a whole, had undertaken commendable efforts to combat crime, terrorism and piracy.  Such endeavours deserved international support.

But, as efforts were redoubled to confront transnational organized crime, institution-building and reform were crucial, as well as strengthened rule of law and accountability.  Confronting crime was not only about patrolling borders and waters, he said — alternative economic opportunities should be created for the most vulnerable sections of the population by addressing the underlying socio-economic conditions that gave rise to crime, poverty, environmental degradation and social exclusion.  The world community must now determine what could be done, in a spirit of shared responsibilities, to confront those menaces.
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