UN General Assembly
Special Session on the
World Drug Problem
8-10 June 1998

Bringing Drug Criminals to Justice

The Need for Global Cooperation

In December 1992, officials at the Frankfurt airport seized 63 boxes containing 11 million tablets of the mind-altering drug "ecstasy", with a street value of about 500 million Deutsche Mark (US $360 million). The shipment from Riga, in the Baltic state of Latvia, was on its way to the Netherlands and Nepal. Weeks earlier, German officials had been contacted by a German chemical firm, which reported a suspicious request for one tonne of benzylcyanide, a substance used to manufacture the drug.

An investigation by Belgian, Dutch, German and Slovak officials uncovered a Dutch-Slovak criminal ring which had bribed the director, deputy director and chief chemist of a Riga pharmaceutical company to manufacture ecstasy and other synthetic drugs.

Most of the organizers were arrested and brought to justice in their respective home countries. But due to differences in the legal systems of Belgium and the Netherlands, and a delay in obtaining evidence through official requests for judicial aid, the Dutch ringleader, who was a Belgian resident, had to be released.

International cooperation is essential in drug cases, but legal incompatibilities, even between two countries as closely linked as Belgium and the Netherlands, often allow criminals to walk free.

To combat this and other problems, the United Nations General Assembly will hold a special session on the world drug problem from 8 to 10 June in New York. It is hoped that Governments will agree to increase judicial cooperation so that more drug criminals can be brought to justice.

"Drug traffickers are thinking globally -- so should we", says Pino Arlacchi, Executive Director of the United Nations International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP). "The United Nations must meet this challenge head-on."

Different legal systems --
different languages

Discrepancies between the world's three major legal systems -- common law, civil law and Islamic law -- cause real problems for police and judges trying to prosecute drug criminals. In one case, a request for judicial assistance signed by the Attorney General of a common law system country was refused by a civil law country on the sole grounds that the person making the request was not a judge. To resolve the problem, the requesting State passed legislation to deem the Attorney General to be a judge.

In civil law countries, the advanced phase of an investigation is under the supervision of a judicial officer, whereas under common law, judicial officers are not involved until a charge is laid and proceedings are formally instituted. Such a basic difference in procedure between two major legal systems can cause major problems. For example, a request to take evidence from witnesses in court made by a common law country to a civil law country may be refused because the case is still under investigation by the police in the requesting State and not yet before a court.

Extradition requests are also subject to cross-border entanglements. If a country refuses extradition, for example, on the grounds that the person sought is one of its nationals, it is legally obliged to submit that case to national prosecutors for a decision on whether or not to prosecute. In order for that to happen, the prosecutor must obtain the evidence from the country requesting extradition. But this is expensive, and witnesses must be transported from one country to another.

Another problem -- a very practical one -- has to do with language differences. Legal matters are hard enough to understand, since the language is specialized. Translating evidence and charges into a foreign language further complicates matters and is both expensive and time-consuming.

The main obstacle to multilateral initiatives in the sensitive areas of justice and law enforcement is anxiety over perceived loss of national sovereignty. Increasingly, however, governments are balancing sovereignty against the danger to institutional integrity posed by drug cartels, according to UNDCP.

Regional Cooperation

During the past five years, UNDCP has developed a network of memoranda of understanding to strengthen cooperation between Governments to fight the drug problem. Frameworks for cooperation in the drug field are also provided by regional plans of action. For instance, in May 1996 UNDCP convened a regional meeting on drug control cooperation in the Caribbean. As a result, 29 countries and inter-governmental, non-governmental and regional organizations adopted the Barbados Plan of Action containing 87 recommendations to improve the effectiveness of national drug control councils, drug control legislation, law enforcement, maritime cooperation and demand reduction efforts.

Memoranda of Understanding

A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) is a non-binding agreement which allows governments, agencies such as customs or police, and commercial organizations such as airlines, to work together. Ideally this form of cooperation deepens and broadens in scope over time. UNDCP has brokered MoUs in many regions of the world, resulting in cooperation in intelligence gathering, harmonized legal and institutional frameworks, joint enforcement operations and demand reduction efforts.

Drug Control MoUs signed with UNDCP:

1993: China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand (Cambodia and Vietnam joined in 1995)
1993: Myanmar and India
1994: Myanmar and Bangladesh
1994: Iran and Pakistan (with option for Afghanistan to join at later date)
1995: Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Hungary and the Slovak Republic
1996: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan
1996: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Peru, Uruguay
1996: Mexico, Central America republics

The UN International Drug Control Programme has also signed MoUs with several regional or sub-regional organizations, including: the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the Economic Cooperation Organization (comprising Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan), and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SARC).

Mutual legal assistance treaties

Mutual legal assistance treaties are used to remove obstacles to international evidence gathering and to harmonize criminal procedures. One of the most successful examples is the treaty signed in 1977 between the United States and Switzerland, which provided invaluable information relating to drug trafficking and money laundering. Switzerland provided evidence admissible in U.S. courts and agreed to make the provision of assistance obligatory in organized crime cases.

Another example is bilateral cooperation between the U.S. and Italy, which contributed to the disruption in the 1980s of the "Pizza Connection" narcotics network established by the U.S. and Sicilian mafias. Law enforcement officers in Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and the USA collaborated for years, leading to the arrests of more than one hundred individuals.

Controlled Deliveries

One way that governments work together in the fight against drugs is through "controlled deliveries". Instead of arresting traffickers and seizing their drugs, the traffickers are sometimes allowed to proceed on their journey and deliver the shipment unaware that their movements are being closely monitored by the authorities. The aim of this technique is to capture the organizers and seize greater quantities of drugs, instead of simply arresting a courier and a single shipment.

When a controlled delivery crosses many borders, authorities from each country must work together to maintain continuous surveillance.

Problems begin when the law of a country states that upon detection, drugs must be confiscated. Even when appropriate laws are in place, it is still difficult to coordinate the border control, national and state police and coast guards within each country to ensure continuous surveillance. Other areas of concern are a lack of technical capacity on the part of law enforcement authorities, doubts as to the effective destruction of seized drugs, the possibilities for corruption, and problems of agency or national rivalry, since a delayed seizure means that the "glory" goes to the authorities in the final destination.

Improving communications

The reduction of international trade restrictions and the rising volume of trade makes it harder to detect illicit cargo and drug profits without prior intelligence. Also, open borders are leading to new drug trafficking routes. Thus the sharing of information between countries is more important than ever.

On the border between Iran and Pakistan, where large quantities of opiates are smuggled on their way to Europe, UNDCP has provided telecommunications equipment and training to improve border control cooperation. Dozens of VHF base stations equipped with 30-metre towers permit communications between officers in 27 border posts on the Iranian side and 15 Pakistani border posts, as well as between the capitals of Zahedan and Quetta. Commanders of both countries meet to discuss drug control efforts, and tonnes of hashish, heroin, and opium have been seized as a result of the project.

More and more, Governments are enhancing communications capabilities and sharing formerly restricted information in order to gain a better understanding of drug trafficking trends and to improve the targeting of suspect persons and goods. Interpol, the International Criminal Police Organization, plays a key role. Its X.400 telecommunications system is connected to almost all of its 177 member countries. Each week, Interpol's Drugs Sub-Division transmits a weekly intelligence message to the national central bureau in each member country to update specialized drug law enforcement agencies on current developments in the drug situation worldwide.

The system, which has recently been upgraded in Central Europe, the Middle East and Africa, forms a global network that offers the capability of sharing police information under optimum conditions of speed and security.

"For instance, if somebody in Hong Kong has a message and needs information for a case they're working on from somebody in Brazil, they can make that connection through the national central bureaus", says an Interpol official. "We have cut through the bureaucratic red tape in those countries that have agreed the police can share information back and forth and get work done that needs to be done for active criminal investigations."

Another vital partner is the World Customs Organization (WCO). UNDCP and WCO have several on-going joint projects for the development of regional intelligence liaison offices in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia and the Pacific, and Eastern and Central Europe.

UNDCP also funds computerized intelligence systems which enable enforcement agencies to share information on suspected shipments and to carry out joint operations, for example, to track controlled deliveries.

Collaborating with Interpol, the WCO and regional and national law enforcement bodies, UNDCP analyzes the characteristics of couriers, modes of transportation, quantities of drugs being trafficked and the ever-changing drug trafficking routes. Called "profiling", this information on the nature and patterns of trafficking assists governments in developing and implementing national and regional strategies.

To promote common maritime law enforcement, UNDCP has created a new training guide for national authorities.

International action plan

The General Assembly's special session on the world drug problem in June is expected to mobilize political will among Governments to work together more effectively in the global fight against drugs. One concrete way to do this is to strengthen, harmonize and simplify legal procedures to increase international cooperation.

At the meeting, Governments are expected to adopt measures in the areas of extradition, mutual legal assistance, transfer of proceedings, controlled delivery, and combating illicit drug traffic by sea to be implemented by 2003.

On a broader front, there are some calls for universal jurisdiction to prosecute drug criminals.

"Drug traffickers enjoy freedom of movement that police agencies do not have because police and prosecutors are limited by different authorities", says Pino Arlacchi, UNDCP Executive Director. "We should start seriously to propose, to introduce fragments of universal jurisdiction that will allow police agencies and investigators to move with the same freedom as the traffickers."

The universal jurisdiction, referred to by Mr. Arlacchi, could involve the prosecution of drug traffickers by a global criminal court. The issue is being taken up one week after the General Assembly's special session when delegates will converge in Rome to finalize and adopt a treaty to establish the first permanent International Criminal Court. While some countries would like the Court to prosecute drug traffickers, the majority of governments favour limiting jurisdiction to such offenses as genocide and war crimes. The final decision on the scope of the Court's jurisdiction will be taken at the UN Diplomatic Conference of Plenipotentiaries on the Establishment of an International Criminal Court, from 15 June to 17 July in Rome.


UN Department of Public Information
Bill Hass, tel. (212) 963-0353,
Ann Marie Erb, tel. (212) 963-5851, or
Tim Wall at (212) 963-1887.
Fax: (212) 963-1186
E-mail: vasic@un.org
UN web site: http://www.un.org

Sandro Tucci, Spokesman
UN International Drug Control Programme
Vienna International Centre, Room E 1448
P.O. Box 500
A-1400 Vienna, Austria
Tel: (431) 21345-5629;
Fax: (431) 21345-5931

Published by the United Nations Department of Public Information - DPI/1983 - May 1998