“You cannot clap with one hand”: UNODC and African States prioritize regional cooperation in combating organized crime in the context of COVID-19

Ministers from Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Djibouti, Rwanda, Tanzania and Burkina Faso came together with the African Union (AU) Permanent Observer to the UN and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)  virtually on 22 July to highlight the importance of regional cooperation in combating organized crime in Africa in the context of COVID-19.

African Ministers unanimously welcomed the opportunity for collectively discussing ways to counter organized criminal groups which are taking advantage of increased vulnerabilities caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in Africa. 

UNODC Executive Director, Ghada Waly, outlined the ways in which UNODC is working with partners in Africa across 35 countries to combat organized crime and help countries build back better from the COVID-19 crisis. This includes online technical assistance programmes, efforts to protect recovery funds in Africa from diversion into organized crime, and a forthcoming Strategic Vision for Africa 2020-2030. Highlighting that organized crime is an enemy that is empowered and emboldened by the very conditions that hold back our societies, Ms Waly stressed that “If we are to succeed against this enemy, we need partnerships and coordinated efforts to address gaps and build robust cooperative frameworks”.

Speakers shared experiences of how COVID-19 is providing new opportunities in Africa for trafficking in persons, smuggling of migrants, cybercrime, corruption, maritime crime, drug trafficking, production of counterfeit medical products, and wildlife crime. As  Mahamoud Ali Youssouf, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Djibouti put it, organized criminal groups “have adapted to profit from COVID-19”. 

Many states also recognized that, as we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC) in 2020, UNTOC continues to provide a framework for guiding international cooperation. 

Vincent Biruta, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Rwanda, highlighted that  UNTOC represents “the most effective framework” for facilitating strengthened cooperation at the judicial level. 

Overall, in building back from COVID-19, states called for a robust, inclusive, cooperative approach based on shared responsibility between all African states. As  Ally Coulibaly, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Côte d’Ivoire, put it, states “cannot tackle organized crime alone”.

Palamagamba Kabudi, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and East African Cooperation, Tanzania similarly highlighted the importance of such cooperation in the context of overstretched state resources. States called for holistic, comprehensive approaches which address both the symptoms and causes of crime, and protect human rights and gender equality.

Looking ahead,  Hamdi Sanad Loza, Deputy Foreign Minister for African Affairs, Egypt, noted UNODC’s support will be “instrumental”. 

Finally, in shaping the future of Africa beyond COVID-19, states recalled that the Sustainable Development Goals provide a crucial roadmap for recovery as states work together to be able to “clap with two hands”.