THE BLOG

Can Smart Development and the Rule of Law Help Curb Crime?

04/23/2015 11:33 am ET | Updated Jun 23, 2015

The world's largest gathering on crime prevention and criminal justice, the United Nations Crime Congress, has just concluded in Doha, Qatar, adopting the Doha Declaration that contains specific commitments to the rule of law .

As United Nations Member States are poised to adopt a new, universal development agenda with the aim of "leaving no one behind", the Doha Declaration is particularly relevant this year and more so, is the call for doing what the international community finds harder: moving to action.

Studies prove what to most of us seems obvious: Crime and poverty rates are closely correlated. The most conflict-prone and insecure countries are also among the most destitute. The poorest neighborhoods, even in the richest cities, are often the places with the highest crime rates.

High on the Congress's agenda this year was the prevalence and impact of organized crime. Extortion, corruption and illicit trafficking have long been known to distort economic activity. But these forms of crime are also implicated in environmental degradation. Deforestation, fish stock depletion and pollution of riverine and marine resources have strong links to criminal syndicates. Organized crime has also compromised the quality of public health, safety and education services. Where government revenues go missing through well-oiled corruption schemes, teachers and doctors go unpaid. Where police salaries come late or not at all, police officers may turn to petty corruption and in time, to other, more lucrative means of earning income.

The nexus between organized crime and politics has added a new dimension of complexity to many rapidly growing countries, affecting not only economic development but also corrupting public services. Crime and violence has eroded political and state institutions, including the police and the judiciary. In some cases, the protector has become the predator. The adverse impact spills over national borders to threaten us all. Arms traffickers and terrorists seek safe haven where law enforcement and justice sector capacity are weakest.

At the root of crime, whether organized or opportunistic, is a deficit in the rule of law. The rule of law is a principle of governance in which no individual or organization, including the state, is above the reach of the law. This principle requires, too, that laws are consistent with international human rights norms, and promote wide participation in decision-making, accountability to citizens, transparency in governance processes, and equality in treatment. Efforts to strengthen the rule of law may involve legislative reform initiatives, efforts to strengthen justice institutions, and greater access to justice for ordinary citizens. Indeed, promotion of the rule of law gives rise to transparent, responsive and accountable institutions, which in turn fosters people's confidence in their governments.

The rule of law, however, is not something you can drop from a helicopter. Each country has its distinct legal system, with its own jurisprudence. Just as the development challenges of each country are unique, the justice-making efforts of each country are also deeply rooted in specific histories, politics, values, customs and traditions. Rules and remedies may need to be informed not just by the national legal system but also by local, customary or informal practices, taking into account the specific circumstances of each country, while respecting the broad, internationally recognized norms and standards that are fundamental to the rule of law principle.

It is also of critical importance not to forget that successful solutions to high crime rates also lie in social policies, such as those that tackle youth employment and job creation.

Indeed, efforts to strengthen the rule of law pay off in ways that few other forms of development aid can. But success does not happen overnight. Legal reform, institution-building and greater levels of access to justice are initiatives that take time, financing and political will. The Doha Declaration is timely recognition of the need for a purposeful global effort to address violent conflict, prevent crime and promote inclusive sustainable development.