For information only – not an official document

17 May 2024

New UNODC analysis highlights complex “patchwork” of environmental protection laws globally, offers recommendations to prevent criminal exploitation

VIENNA, 17 May (UN Information Service) – A new analysis from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released today finds that legal protection of the environment varies widely by country and region in terms of crimes covered and punishments given, and highlights priority areas for consideration to strengthen prevention and curb crimes that affect the environment.

In “The Landscape of Criminalization”, Part One of the first-ever Global Analysis of Crimes that Affect the Environment, UNODC examines how 193 UN Member States criminalize actions that harm the environment – and how such offences are penalized - across nine environment areas, namely deforestation and logging, air pollution, noise pollution, soil pollution, water pollution, fishing, waste, and wildlife.

“Our review shows that there has been progress globally in advancing environmental protection laws, but legislation and enforcement remain uneven, offering criminal groups opportunities to exploit gaps in responses,” said Angela Me, Chief of Research and Analysis at UNODC. “Stronger legislation can help to deter potential and repeat offenders and also widen the range of investigative tools and resources for law enforcement to stop crimes that affect the environment.”

Wildlife and waste are the areas where most countries (164 and 160, respectively) include at least one related criminal offence in their national legislation. In contrast, soil and noise pollution (99 and 97, respectively) are the areas where the fewest countries have criminal provisions.

At least 85 per cent of UN Member States criminalize offences against wildlife and at least 45 per cent punish some of these offences with four years or more in prison, which constitutes a serious crime under the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC).

The level of protection afforded to the environment – as well as the penalties imposed – are closely related to the conditions in each country or region. For example, 43 per cent of countries in Oceania regard illegal fishing as a serious crime (meaning it is punished with four years or more in prison), in contrast to just two per cent of countries in Europe. 12 out of 18 countries in Eastern Africa, meanwhile, regard wildlife offences as serious crimes.

Africa and Asia have the highest average percentage of Member States with penalties meeting the serious crime definition, indicating that the legislation is not necessarily ‘weak’, as is commonly stated, but that there is a lack of enforcement of the legislation.

The report notes many areas for improvement of environmental legislation and penalties. Member States could consider increasing penalties to enable Member States to utilize UNTOC provisions for international cooperation (such as extradition or mutual legal assistance.)

Countries could also consider improving legislation allowing for confiscation of the instrumentalities or proceeds of environmental offences. The current lack of such provisions may be leading to the prosecution of minor offenders, rather than the large economic interests that often drive crimes that affect the environment.

Finally, the report underscores the need for more data collection on these crimes, enforcement of legislation, and more research on the penalties administered and the effects of these. Only with this information can it be understood which combinations of criminalization and restorative approaches are most affective at preventing crimes that affect the environment.


This report is Part One of UNODC’s first-ever Global Analysis of Crimes that Affect the Environment. Throughout 2024, UNODC will be releasing chapters on illegal deforestation and logging and illegal mining; waste crime and trafficking and criminal marine pollution; illegal fishing as a crime; and a full global analysis on how crimes that affect the environment contribute to climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution. Check back at for more details.

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For further information, please contact: 

Brian Hansford
Chief of Advocacy Section 

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