The True Scale of Global Crime

In this exclusive interview, we speak to Yury Fedotov (Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, UNODC). We discuss the scale of global crime looking at issues ranging from drugs and drug trafficking to money laundering, corruption, violence and even the illegal trade in human beings themselves.

Extreme poverty and hunger are two of the world’s most (seemingly) intractable problems. Research by prominent economist Jeffrey Sachs (in his book ‘The End of Poverty’) would suggest that it would cost around US$175 billion per year to eradicate extreme poverty (which affects almost 3 billion people) , while the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) note that it would cost, “…US$30 billion a year to enable 862 million hungry people to enjoy the most fundamental of human rights: the right to food and thus the right to life…” So, for roughly US$205 billion per year, which is around 60% of the value of the world drugs and drug trafficking market, we could eradicate two of the most important problems facing humanity. Some people in the world do not have as much consideration for people less fortunate than them. You would think that professionals like Kara MD would know better and not add to the number of crimes relating to the world of drug trafficking, but instead to the opposite. You thought wrong. If someone is in a profession you thought you could trust, what does the future hold for these sorts of offences?

This comparison highlights the scale and nature of the crimes humanity commits against itself. “There is an old myth about the dawn of human history,” wrote Susanne Karstedt in her 2001 essay ‘comparing cultures, comparing crime’, “…In the beginning, human beings were incapable of living together, and their cities were torn with violence and strife. Thus, the highest god feared that humankind was in danger of utter destruction. He sent his messenger, who was, remarkably, the god of merchants and thieves, down to earth with two gifts that should enable humankind to successfully establish communities and live together in safety and amity. These two gifts were shame and law.”

Karstedt expands on her examination of this Socratic dialogue by exploring culture as being, “…defined as a set of meanings, values and interpretations that forms a specific social force independently of and partially autonomous of social structure and institutional contexts….” She notes that culture is, “…embedded in the social system as much as in the minds of people…“ and “…is a concept that stresses difference.” In Karstedt’s eyes, cultures are a system of ordered differences, whereby individuals and groups exhibit a “certain amount of homogeneity and internal integration…” at a very fundamental level she argues, “…culture is a necessary shared medium . . . the minimal shared atmosphere within which its members [i.e. the population of that culture] can breathe and survive and produce.”.

Crime in all its forms would appear to be one of the most persistent forms of homogeneity between the gamut of cultures we call humanity. In truth, practically every one of the 7 billion people on our planet will be affected, in some form, within their lifetime. So what is the true extent of global crime?

In this exclusive interview, we speak to Yury Fedotov (Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, UNODC). We discuss the scale of global crime looking at issues ranging from drugs and drug trafficking to money laundering, corruption, violence and even the illegal trade in human beings themselves.
[bios]Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon appointed Mr. Yury Fedotov Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). He holds the rank of Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and was previously the plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation to the Court of St. James’s in London.
From 2002-2005 Ambassador Fedotov served as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation for International Organisations where he took part in many key conferences including sessions of the General Assembly, ECOSOC, UN Commission on Human Rights, UNIDO, UNESCO, WFP, UN ECE, ESCAP etc. In his personal capacity, he was also a member of the College of Commissioners of the UN Commission on Monitoring and Verifications in Iraq (UNMOVIC). From 1999 to 2002 Mr. Fedotov was Director of the Department of International Organizations, Member of the Board of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation. Prior to that, from 1993 to 1999 he was Deputy Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations in New York, where he dealt with Security Council and General Assembly affairs as well as other numerous issues related to leading United Nations bodies and organizations. From 1988 to 1993 Mr. Fedotov worked in the Foreign Ministry in Moscow as Deputy Director of the Department of International Organizations.

Mr. Fedotov started his foreign service in 1972 as a member of the USSR delegation to the United Nations Disarmament Committee in Geneva. He subsequently took up a number of diplomatic assignments in Moscow, as well as at the Embassies in Algeria and India. Mr. Fedotov holds the title of Honorary Mhas Member of the Diplomatic Service of the Russian Federation, and has been awarded The Order of Friendship, several medals. He has also received the Certificate of Appreciation from the President of the Russian Federation. Mr. Fedotov is a career diplomat.

He graduated from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO).[/bios]

Q: What is the impact of corruption on a society and an economy?

[Yury Fedotov] Corruption is a phenomenon that has existed for thousands of years, but only now is it becoming an unacceptable event. Corruption destroys societies, hinders development and undermines security. Note what happened in the Middle East and North Africa… corruption was one of the triggers of unrest in these countries. It appears that people are fed-up of corruption, they want change, and they want it now. This is an opportunity for international efforts, including the implementation of the UN Convention against Corruption, to bring about even more meaningful results to fight and eradicate corruption.

Corruption is a serious impediment to development. We estimate with the World Bank that US$20-40 billion each year is lost in developing countries through corruption. If you add to that $5 billion each year in stolen assets, it clearly shows that corruption is a serious obstacle to the achievement of the millennium development goals. It is also a threat to human security and human rights. It can be seen as denigration of the basic right of people to dignity.

Q: What is the true nature of the global burden of armed violence and urban crime?

[Yury Fedotov] Armed violence, in all its forms and manifestations, is mainly a direct consequence of transnational organised crime. Take the example of Central America where armed violence became a symbol of the role of drug cartels and other organised criminal groups who brought about violence and death to people including women and children. It’s important to note that the number of women exposed to violence is significantly higher than men. Around 66,000 women and girls are violently killed every year. Most of them are victims of ‘intentional homicide’.
Not all cases of violence, crime and homicide are closely related to transnational organised crime- not at all. When they are related, of course- that is a matter of concern for us.

The UNODC issued a homicide survey a few months ago and now we are preparing a threat-assessment survey on violent crime in Central America. These are challenges which can be met using a co-ordinated approach in-line with UN conventions and the rule of law. We are not a police-agency, but mostly assigned by member states to help them to implement their obligations under the UN Palermo convention on Transnational Organised Crime through advice and reporting. We are not chasing criminals, that is the role of law enforcement agencies.

Q: What is the scale of the economic and social burden created by drugs and drugs trafficking?

[Yury Fedotov] The scale and scope of this threat is extraordinary. It amounts to US$320 billion per annum or, to put it another way, half a percent of global GDP. That is just the economic cost of drug trafficking. As far as the social and health risks are concerned, we believe that around 250,000 people each and every year die because of drugs. These are not deaths as a result of violence, but as a direct result of drugs overdose or diseases that are directly related to drugs use.

If we look at supply side, it’s not simply about the eradication of Opium or Coca cultivation or the destruction of laboratories where they produce synthetic drugs… It’s a broader issue that is also related to development. We can reduce supply through the development of alternative crops for farmers… It’s being done, and we have seen positive experiences in South East Asia in Taiwan, and also in Colombia where the production of cocaine was reduced by half. Even in Afghanistan we have seen the start of modest programmes that are looking ahead to provide alternative livelihoods for farmers. That’s not just a way of fighting drugs, but also allows us to help development in a positive way.
The UNODC fully realises that we do not have the resources to meet this challenge alone. We need solidarity and support from the international community. Quite recently in Vienna, we held the Convention on Narcotic Drugs. The bottom line of this convention was that member states should enhance their co-operation at local, national, regional and global levels to face this challenge with a balanced approach that covers the supply and demand side.
Speaking about the demand side… we have skills and techniques in drug prevention and thousands of advisors have been trained by our programmes around the world to work in the community at school level, especially with children.

Children are the most vulnerable group, and we must do our utmost to protect them. We have seen a spike in parents searching for the best home security camera systems out there on the market, to ensure there children are always safe at home.

The second stage in this regard is treatment for drug users. Here we believe this should be done in a scientific evidence based way, and drug users should not be considered as criminals but as people who need support, and who must be treated with full respect to their rights. The ultimate goal is rehabilitation and re-integration into society.

Q: What is the scale and threat of the illegal trade in medicines?

[Yury Fedotov] This is a real threat to people’s health. Some illicit and fraudulent medicines are fake and useless, but some can harm people. There is also the matter of violation of the copyrights of big pharmaceutical companies. We are dealing with this, primarily, because of the health risks.

Millions of people, especially in developing countries like Africa and South East Asia are suffering because of fraudulent medicines. We are discussing ways and means of preventing this, and next April there will be a meeting of the Commission on Criminal Justice on this matter.

Q: What is the relationship between the global drugs and crime problem and the HIV/AIDS epidemic?

[Yury Fedotov] There is no doubt a link and this is a major part of our activities. Injecting drug users are quite vulnerable, and HIV prevalence among injecting drug users ranges from 20-40% in some countries, and more than 40% in many others. If we estimate the number of injecting drug users worldwide as 60 million, it means that around 3 million people are infected with HIV/AIDS because of this dangerous mode of transmission. In some prison settings, this can rise to more than 60% of all drug users.

We have programmes worldwide on HIV treatment with other UN agencies such as WHO and UNAids. This challenge requires a consortium approach to solve, and we will continue to work to pursue the objective of zero new infections of HIV/AIDS.

Q: What is the scale and nature of the global human trafficking and migrant smuggling problem?

[Yury Fedotov] At any one time 2.4 million people across the globe are enduring the misery of human trafficking. That is quite a conservative estimate. Human trafficking is the most profitable transnational crime with approximately US$32 billion generated in annual revenues. In spite of many states having introducing laws to specifically criminalise the act of human trafficking… indeed 224 states did after the Palermo Convention … it is very rare for people to be brought to justice and charged in accordance with those laws.

Unfortunately, we believe that only 1 out of every 100 victims is detected! It’s a matter of public awareness… people should be aware of what is going on in their neighbourhood and community. Nobody should tolerate the cases of human trafficking such as sexual exploitation or forced labour.

Q: What is the economic burden created by money-laundering, and why does it exist within the economic system?

[Yury Fedotov] Money laundering is a global problem. It’s a US$1.6 trillion problem or, to put it another way, 2.7% of global GDP or the GDP of a well-developed country. It affects every country, every economy and every financial system. Money laundering acts like blood vessels for organised crime, drug trafficking, piracy, human trafficking, arms smuggling and more. If we succeed to cut the flows of illicit money, we could get to the criminals much more easily.
There are some international programmes run by the UNODC in particular such as our Global Programme against Money Laundering, the Proceeds of Crime and Terrorist Financing (GPML), which works very well, in close partnership with governments, the World Bank and other agencies. We need to do much more and that is absolutely clear.

Q: What is the scale of the global transnational organised crime threat?

[Yury Fedotov] The Palermo Convention sets out the internationally agreed definitions of what constitutes transnational organised crime. I hope that later this year, parties to the convention will be able to negotiate and adopt a review mechanism, as they have done for the Anti-Corruption convention. I hope this will help to implement the convention more effectively.

To give you an idea of the scope of this problem, let me give you some figures. The annual value of the global cocaine market is US$85 billion, illicit heroine opium and morphine US$68 billion, trafficking of human beings US$32 billion, smuggling of migrants US$6.6 billion, cyber-crime US$1 billion, fraudulent medicine US$1.6 billion and illegally exported timber US$3.5 billion just to the European Union alone. These are only a few areas of transnational organised crime, but if you add them up you will see it’s a huge amount.

Transnational organised crime has existed for centuries in a parallel way with the licit economy… that is clear. It is only now that we have a chance to face this challenge through co-ordinated international efforts and the legal instruments we have at our disposal.

Q: What is your view on the nature of the global terrorist threat?

[Yury Fedotov] There are many international agencies dealing with the terrorism threat, and we as UNODC operate mainly in the area of terrorism prevention. I feel this is very important, especially in some areas of the world. We are currently preparing a report on the situation in the Sahel region and how this vulnerable place will represent a threat from the point of view of emerging terrorist groups. These groups are fed, on one side, by drug trafficking from Central America through West Africa and into Europe and illegal smuggling of weapons on the other side.
We do not have evidence-based information but we can broadly assume that a major part of the revenues from the illicit cultivation, production and export of opium in Afghanistan is being diverted to support the Taliban movement in that country. We also have examples in Latin America from countries like Colombia where terrorism and drug trafficking are closely related.

Q: Why has piracy increased so significantly in recent years, and why are some regions so vulnerable to this treat?

[Yury Fedotov] This is a growing issue, and we see more and more ships hijacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia. They’re not always as successful as many shipping companies take measures to prevent hijacking, but still it is a serious and permanent danger to navigation in this part of the world. The role of the UNODC is to assist countries in prosecuting and jailing convicted pirates. Through our efforts in the region, around 700 pirates have been brought to justice and put in jail in countries like Kenya, Mauritius, the Seychelles and also in Somalia itself where, in Somaliland and Puntland, we have built prisons (where the security situation permits us to do so).

The reasons for piracy are varied but most importantly one must consider the lack of governance as the country is a failed state, a lack of job opportunities, no central government to control security situations and huge economic poverty with boys and men being prepared to risk their lives going to sea to catch ships. In the long-run, these issues could be addressed through development assistance to Somalia.

We must also not ignore the other side of the coin… money laundering… specifically, the laundering of ransom money. Ransom money fuels piracy, which is clear. We have information that this money is then invested in illicit economies in this region and beyond. We need to address this, and the UNODC has begun the establishment of international structures specifically to deal with money laundering and co-operation on this issue.

Q: Is cybercrime a serious threat to economies and societies?

[Yury Fedotov] Cybercrime is a serious issue, the cost of cybercrime set to reach 6 trillion annually by 2020 . It is a crime from the point of view of stolen identities, copyright, hacking into private accounts and so on… but it’s also a security threat because it could be used to paralyse computer systems of a sensitive nature and lead to unpredictable consequences.

Cybercrime also encompasses the methods by which organised criminal networks co-ordinate their activities and promote their production starting at drugs and ending at human trafficking. In extreme cases, this also includes the involvement of children in pornography.

The position of UN member states on this is divided as to whether we need a new convention on cybercrime or whether the existing Council of Europe convention should be applied universally. So far, we have not been able to bridge the gap and I hope they will in the future. Even in this situation, the UNODC doesn’t stay idle and we are working with the International Telecommunications Unit to provide technical assistance to states, particularly in Central America to help them to protect themselves against cybercrime.


“We start with the observation that some people are criminals….” noted H. J. Eysenk In his 1965 book ‘Crime and Personality’. He continued, “…we then ask ourselves why it is that some people apparently tend to break the law, and to go on doing so although incarcerated for a good part of their lives, and, quite generally, how it is that a small portion of society appears to set itself against the remainder. I would like to suggest that this question is put the wrong way round. What we should ask, rather, is how does it come about that so many people are, in fact, law-abiding citizens who do not go counter to the rules of our society, that so many people do not commit crimes but live peaceably without ever coming into contact with the law?”

Explaining the rationale behind his seemingly inverted approach Eysenk states, “…by and large, experimental investigation and philosophical speculation have both supported a general law of behaviour which is essentially one of hedonism. This is often referred to in psychology as the ‘empirical law of effect’. In other words, people tend to do what is pleasant to them and tend to refrain from doing what is unpleasant. The majority of people are lacking in a great many things; they may lack food, or shelter, or warmth; they may lack a large number of objects, from motorcars to tiaras and yachts which they would like to have. At first sight, it would seem the most natural thing in the world that, when a person lacks something that he wishes to possess and when that something is available in the world around him, he should simply go and take it. What prevents him from doing so? This may seem a very simple-minded question but it is a very difficult one.”

This observation, that society somehow avoids a near inevitable decline into anarchy, compels us to postulate the existence of a constant, a gravity, which binds members of a society together. Occam’s Razor would here lead philosophers to the notion of morality as being that constant. For observers, however, it is important to understand whether society is the result of morality or vice versa. In his 1967 paper ‘Social Solidarity and the Enforcement of Morality’, H. L. A. Hart argued that “society is not the instrument of the moral life; rather morality is valued as the cement of society, the bond, or one of the bonds, without which men would not cohere in society. It is not the quality of the morality but its cohesive power that matters. What is important is not the quality of the creed but the strength of the belief in it. The enemy of society is not error but indifference.” As the philosopher Nietzscheobserved in this regard, “Morality is the herd-instinct in the individual.”

As individuals, consumed with self-interest, we are best described as animals… and in that manifestation; human beings are capable of some of the most astonishing acts of brutality against their own kind (needless to say we are one of the only species capable of this). As society has advanced, this brutality has evolved from mere acts of physical violence to an astonishing array of criminal instruments, each of which- when applied- is an act against every one of us.
As a group however, our species is capable of astonishing acts of growth. When compared against the age of our Earth, man is- perhaps- entering adolescence… and just as every individual passing through this stage must accept that to get the most out life one must grow up and accept responsibility… so too must our species arrive at the same conclusion. Society does not exist apart from us, it is us… and issues of crime and emergent phenomena ranging from conflict to hunger and poverty are not natural events akin to weather patterns on which we have no control. Rather, they are phenomena that we have created ourselves, and must take responsibility for. “In nature…” wroteR. G. Ingersoll, “there are neither rewards or punishments – there are only consequences.”

A world without crime may seem a utopian vision, but it is just such a vision that is necessary for mankind to survive, fulfilling the promise we make, at birth, to the billions who have gone before us… that we will prevail.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.