South Africa

UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime: South Africa should live up to Ramaphosa’s praise of civil society’s role in State Capture

In a major negotiation in Vienna, South Africa looks set to fall back on its old position, in alliance with Russia and China, that civil society should have no role in reviewing states’ adherence to international norms on combating organised crime. If it follows through, it will have blown an opportunity to strike an independent foreign policy stance on a crucial global issue where South Africa has a unique perspective — and will have taken a position that runs counter to President Ramaphosa’s own praise of civil society’s role in combating State Capture. But there is still time to change tack.

Top or the agenda this week in Vienna for the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime has been an agreement on a proposed review mechanism for the convention. South Africa has taken the meeting seriously with the Minister of Police, Bheki Cele and a large delegation from the SAPS leadership in attendance. A review mechanism” may sound like a fairly inconsequential and technical issue, but review mechanisms are where conventions on livewire international issues such as organised crime get their life. When the organised crime convention was first signed in 2000, its lack of such a mechanism over the last 18 years had it declared dead on arrival by some observers. The COP takes place only every two years. It should be a high-level platform to assess progress in implementing the convention — and progress against organised crime in general, which is something it has not achieved to date. The review mechanism discussion has also become the central point of debate around the convention, effectively pushing aside any real engagement on substance and trends in organised crime. Most now agree that establishing a review mechanism will be the decisive factor in the future success of the convention. Without it, there is little doubt that the instrument will be less effective in addressing the pressing issue of organised crime — one clearly of enormous concern to South Africans (witness the recent protests against gangs across the country). A review mechanism is a system put in place by state parties to assess how countries are performing in meeting their obligations under the instrument. Reviewing implementation is, as can be imagined, highly political in nature: judgment is passed on country compliance, which in a context of transparency and external input can be highly embarrassing for poor performers. But it can also effectively drive reform and improved performance. And, without such a mechanism, there is no clear measure for determining whether a convention is being successfully or effectively implemented at the country level. By collating information from many countries, a review mechanism also provides a more global framework to assess the international community’s overall response, something badly missing in the debate on organised crime. For various reasons, there is sudden momentum on this issue after many years of impasse — not least of which is the growing global concern around the growth of illicit markets and organised crime and a feeling that the convention needs new life. There is a groundswell of feeling that, after grandstanding over the politics around the process for so many years, some substantive results are now needed. The central point of contention in the review mechanism negotiations is the role of civil society. As the global threat from organised crime continues to grow and expand into new markets, civil-society activism to combat the issue will only become more established. While its formal role may be restricted, the mere existence of the review mechanism provides a focal point around which civil-society mobilisation and monitoring of states’ records on organised crime may be built, both in South Africa and elsewhere. Civil society, for example, maintains a host of information on multiple issues related to organised crime, including in relation to trafficking in human beings, wildlife crime and drug use, to name only a few. All of these issues are of concern to South Africa. And without active civil society involvement the process becomes state-led and less transparent and accountable, country reviews not getting published for outside comment being just one example of how states close ranks. At the eighth COP South Africa had vocally opposed civil-society participation and the negotiations in any event fell short of their objective, but with a new president in Pretoria who has recently praised the role of civil society in tackling State Capture, a change of direction was eagerly awaited. The South African delegation is less assertive this time around, but its allegiance to the position which limits (or even excludes) civil society is certain. It is manifestly clear that civil society was key in undermining the process of State Capture. Yet that has not yet translated into how the country engages externally on issues of civil society as a key element of democracy — a critical global debate, often masked by other issues, but present in discussions around almost all thematic debates and the role of independent expertise to hold states more effectively to account. In taking a position which appears to have been arrived at through inertia, or through a knee-jerk resort to what are seen to be established alliances which trump all else, South Africa risks sending a strong signal that nothing has fundamentally changed with the new administration. While crime is perhaps a small issue in panoply of many, for South African foreign policy a bit of independent thinking on a crucial issue of particular concern to the country would be welcome. For a start, it would benefit South Africa’s own strategic national interest to have transparent and effective reviews conducted in countries which are a source of crime and illicit trafficking both close (take Mozambique as an example, where there is strong evidence of state protection of drug trafficking) and afar (heroin from Afghanistan is having devastating effect in the streets of all major South African cities). This is not about siding with one set of countries above another. What is at stake is whether we have the ability or will to independently deliberate on issues of key global importance, and to take positions that reflect fundamental South African interests and values of consultation and inclusion that the president has advertised. Latin American countries, for example, with crime patterns much more similar to those in South Africa than the countries we are siding with, welcome co-operation with civil society and do not oppose its inclusion. With an active civil society and a recognition by government of the important role that it has played, now is the time for South Africa to step up for what the President himself has said he believes in. DM Mark Shaw is director of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime, Geneva.