By Ian Tennant / Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime

The United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice (henceforth ‘UN Crime Congress’) is a key opportunity for the international community to make progress on countering organized crime and the damage it does around the wold. This five-yearly gathering, the 14th iteration of which will be held in Kyoto, Japan, in April 2020,1 provides a platform for engagement whose potential will hopefully be leveraged by the governments in attendance. It will be the second time the Congress is hosted in Kyoto: it was held there in 1970. The Congress is an opportunity for governments, and other attendees, to take stock of the most pressing issues and agree a path forward on them, so as to help the Congress achieve its aims of promoting the principles of the rule of law embedded in the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The Congress, as an international non-decision-making conference, is easy to characterize as detached from the realities on the ground. Nevertheless, its influence over crime policy is significant, as is the opportunity it affords to galvanize international action, and to exchange experiences and new ideas. When analyzing the policy context and the events that have occurred since the last Congress (held in 2015 – see the timeline on page 4 for dates, venues and milestones), it is clear that the agreements reached during past UN Crime Congresses do in fact shape the policy direction of the UN on organized crime. At the same time, however, other issues can overshadow those prioritized at the Congress, and follow-up has arguably been too narrowly focused. Both the Congress and the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice (CCPCJ) have proved to be capable of ignoring or fudging major issues, and also prefer consensus topics to discussing the kind of structural reform that is necessary for the UN to take a more leading, and publicly visible, role on these issues. In this, the role of community responses to organized crime and civil-society voices in organized crime policy development are areas that urgently need to be addressed in the coming Congress in Kyoto.

It is the view of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime that by recognizing current realities and future challenges posed by organized crime, along with inclusive and action-oriented follow-up, this Congress could achieve a lasting and more meaningful impact. Such a goal could prove particularly elusive in an era in which multilateralism and compromise seem to be under threat. Therefore, the challenges posed by organized crime merit – more than ever – the international community’s attention, creative thinking and long-term commitment. This brief examines the impact of past UN Crime Congresses and considers ways to better leverage its untapped potential going forward.