Background Release

11 December 2000



The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, the first international treaty of the twenty-first century and the first legally binding United Nations treaty to fight organized crime, will open for signature at a high-level conference to be held in Palermo, Italy, from 12 to 15 December.

The new treaty, adopted by the General Assembly on 15 November, will enter into force after 40 countries have ratified it. In addition to the Convention, countries will have the opportunity to sign two Protocols, one to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children, and the other against the smuggling of migrants by land, sea and air. Negotiations have been concluded on a third protocol -– against trafficking in firearms –- but have not yet resulted in a final agreement.

Pino Arlacchi, Executive Director of the United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention, has noted that the Convention would go well beyond cooperation on just drug trafficking. "It will strengthen the hand of governments against all forms of serious crimes", he said, emphasizing that the Convention and the Protocols would provide the basis for stronger common action against money-laundering, greater ease of extradition, measures on the protection of witnesses and enhanced judicial cooperation.

The treaty also marks a new chapter in assistance between developed and developing countries by establishing a funding mechanism to help countries implement the Convention. Under that mechanism, regular voluntary contributions from countries would go to a special account for technical assistance to developing countries and countries with economies in transition.

An important goal of the Convention is to get all countries to harmonize their national laws, so that there can be no uncertainty that a crime in one country is also a crime in another. Furthermore, by passing new or updating existing national legislation on transnational criminal activity, all countries would be in a position to cooperate with each other in the investigation and prosecution of such crimes. Under the treaty, countries must criminalize four types of offences: participation in an organized criminal group; money-laundering; corruption; and obstruction of justice.

The Convention provides a broad definition of transnationality, which will provide law enforcement authorities considerable possibilities in using it to track and apprehend criminals. A crime is considered transnational if it is: committed in more than one State; takes place in one State but is planned or controlled from another; is committed in one State by a criminal group that operates in several countries; or if the effects of a crime committed in one country are substantial in another.

A Conference of the Parties to the Convention has been set up to assist governments in combating transnational organized crime and also to promote and monitor implementation of the treaty. To that end, the Conference will meet no later than one year after the treaty has gone into force to agree on various measures, which could include: boosting the exchange of information among nations on patterns and trends in transnational organized crime; cooperating with relevant international and non-governmental organizations; checking periodically on the treaty’s implementation; and making recommendations to improve the treaty and its implementation.

In addition to daily plenary meetings, the Palermo Conference will include the following side events –- Symposium on Rule of Law in the Global Village, Issues of Sovereignty and Universality; Forum for Global Action against Trafficking in Persons; and Seminar for the Media on the Convention. In addition, the municipality of Palermo will conduct an event entitled, "Role of Civil Society in Countering Organized Crime: Global Implications of the Palermo Renaissance".

The work of the United Nations to strengthen international cooperation to combat organized crime dates back 25 years. In 1992, the Organization intensified its efforts to place action against transnational organized crime high on the international agenda with the establishment of the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice.

The General Assembly established an intergovernmental group of experts, which met in Warsaw (February 1998) and elaborated a preliminary draft of a possible convention. Proposals from the Warsaw Intergovernmental Group were submitted to the Commission and led to discussions on a draft resolution. Argentina proposed the drafting of a new convention against trafficking in minors and Austria presented the draft of the convention on illegal trafficking and transport of migrants. Canada and Japan proposed an instrument on firearms.

Upon recommendation by the Commission, the Assembly established in December 1998 an Ad Hoc Committee for the elaboration of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and three additional protocols addressing: trafficking in persons, especially women and children; illegal trafficking in and transporting of migrants; and illicit manufacturing of and trafficking in firearms, their parts, components and ammunition.

The Ad Hoc Committee approved the Convention in July 2000 and the protocols on trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants in October 2000. They were then formally adopted by the Assembly on 15 November.


Every year hundreds of thousands of men, women and children are trafficked illegally all over the world, with annual earnings from trafficking in "human cargo" estimated at $7 billion. The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children sets forth three purposes: to prevent and combat trafficking in persons, paying particular attention to women and children; to protect and assist the victims of such trafficking, with full respect for their human rights; and to promote cooperation among States Parties to meet these objectives.

The Protocol represents a new approach to the problem in several aspects. It defines "trafficking in persons" -- a complex and multifaceted problem particularly when considering the involvement of transnational organized criminal groups. It also combines traditional crime control measures for investigating and punishing offenders with measures for protecting trafficked persons. The Protocol will serve as a model for national legislation, detailing provisions on conduct which should be sanctioned, the severity of punishment and effective measures to combat as well as prevent trafficking.

Well-publicized tragedies have prompted the international community to step up the fight against the smuggling of illegal migrants. The Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air provides an effective tool to combat and prevent the smuggling of human cargo.

It is designed to fight cross-border crimes by obliging signatories to adopt national legal measures, open up information channels and promote international law enforcement cooperation. However, while they have been created to prevent smuggling, the new laws do not aim to dictate domestic migration policy and migration flow. They recognize that migration in itself is not a crime and, therefore, not liable to criminal prosecution. Migrants are victims in need of protection. Thus, emphasis is placed on the criminalization of the smugglers and the organized criminal groups behind them.

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