Does Sovereignty Protect Criminals? Crime and Sovereignty in the Horn of

SOMALIA, Garsale: In a handout photograph dated 22 September and released by the African Union-United Nations Information Support Team 23 September, members of the Al Qaeda-affiliated militant group Al Shabaab stand after giving themselves up to forces of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) in Garsale, approximately 10km from the town of Jowhar, 80km north of the capital Mogadishu. Over 200 militants disengaged following in-fighting between militants in the region in which 8 Al Shabaab were killed, including 2 senior commanders. The former fighters were peacefully taken into AMISOM's protection handing in over 80 weapons in the process, in a further indication that the once-feared militant group is now divided and being defeated across Somalia. Deputy Force Commander of AMISOM Operations, Brigadier Michael Ondoga said a number of militants have contacted the AU force indicating their wish to cease fighting and that they their safety is assured if they give themselves up peacefully to AMISOM forces. AU-UN IST PHOTO / ABUKAR ALBADRI.
Reading Time: 4 minutes

The principle of sovereignty is one of the recognized principles of international law and international relations. In the United Nations Charter, Article 2(4) clearly recognizes this principle by advocating the equality of all UN member states and the concept of non-intervention of one state in the domestic affairs of other states. Further, the principle of sovereignty provides states supreme authority within their territory and immunity from other states’ jurisdiction.

The advent of modernization and globalization, however, challenges the sovereignty principle. Globalization and information technology have increased the free movement of people, goods, and information from one territory to another. This, in turn, highlights the interdependence and interconnectedness of the world’s people and economies. The world’s increasing interconnectedness, while generally a boon for society, benefits criminals as well. Criminals exploit the blue sky of globalization by increasingly becoming transnational and borderless. One of the manifestations of this is the existence of illicit networks in the Horn of Africa and their linkage to the global criminal world.

Several types of transnational organized criminal networks plague the Horn of Africa. The region’s criminal entrepreneurs are engaged in the illicit trade of goods (including drugs, charcoal, small arms, and light weapons), human trafficking including smuggling of migrants, as well as piracy, crimes against wildlife, and cattle rustling.

Small arms are smuggled into the Horn of Africa largely through either Djiboutior Sudan. The Horn of Africa is also used as both a transit and destination point by drug traffickers, primarily to ship heroin from Afghanistan and cocaine from Latin America. Human beings are trafficked from East Africa to the Gulf countries, Europe, South Africa, and the United States. Illicit goods are smuggled to the region through sophisticated networks. The Horn of Africa is also emerging as a major region for wildlife crime, both as a source and a transit route for illicit wildlife products and live animals. Poaching and illegal wildlife trade are pushing species like rhinos and elephants to the brink of extinction. Hugh amounts of illicit charcoal are smuggled from Kenya and Somalia to the Gulf countries. Moreover, the illicit charcoal trade negatively impacts the region’s environment and wildlife by advancing deforestation. Cattle rustling—a traditional problem for East Africa’s pastoralist population—has now become a transnational organized crime business.

The drivers and facilitators for the emergence and expansion of illicit networks in the Horn of Africa include: the limited governance capacity of the region’s states; the Horn’s unmanaged and porous border; weak cross-border cooperation and information-sharing among countries; the cash-intensive nature of the region’s economy; the neo-patrimonial and clientelistic nature of most Horn of Africa states; and the high demand for illicit goods and services within the region.

The illicit networks in the Horn of Africa undermine the security and sovereignty of its states. Transnational organized crime challenges state sovereignty in a variety of ways. These include:  by infiltrating state bureaucracy and financial systems through corruption and/or intimidation; by intensifying this fragile region’s conflicts by supplying small arms and light weapons; and in some instances, by engaging in the electoral process and supporting the election campaigns of corruptible politicians.

Conversely, organized criminal groups in the Horn of Africa also take advantage of state sovereignty when it benefits them.  For example, national borders can provide a protective shell for criminal entrepreneurs, allowing them to shelter their wealth and avoid transnational law enforcement efforts. Ironically, whereas porous borders in the Horn of Africa facilitate transnational organized crime, countermeasures are highly territorially constrained. In short, transnational criminals in the region simultaneously transgress state sovereignty while seeking sovereignty’s protection when it suits them.

The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime of 2000—to which almost all of the Horn of Africa states are signatories—was designed not only to combat specific criminal acts, but also to overcome challenges to international cooperation. Moreover, the Horn of Africa has a mutual legal assistance convention on criminal matters endorsed by the region’s regional economic community—the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). These conventions, as well as other instruments dealing with organized crime, clearly recognize the advantage of state-to-state cooperation and coordination in information-sharing and in taking multilateral law enforcement measures to combat and prevent transnational illicit networks.

The Horn of Africa’s progress in this regard, however, is very limited and unsatisfactory. Many criminal entrepreneurs in the region remain undetected due to the lack of robust multilateral cooperation and coordination mechanisms. Although every state in the region conducts law enforcement operations that combat transnational security threats, these unilateral efforts are insufficient. In fact, these uncoordinated actions, rather than defeating the illicit networks, instead merely displace crime and criminals from one state to another.

To better combat the debilitating effect of transnational crime, the countries in the Horn of Africa should come together, develop a common counter-strategy, and implement it multilaterally. Specifically, enhancing cross-border cooperation on information-sharing, implementing joint border controls, and conducting multilateral law enforcement operations are crucial to reducing the region’s transnational security threats. Further, IGAD and the East African Standby Forceshould lead other partner organizations toward this goal. Building more professional state institutions, specifically law enforcement and security actors, is also a crucial task. Lastly, as IGAD prepares its protocol on the Free Movement of Persons—a good platform to enhance regional integration—it should also take measures to prevent the protocol from being exploited by criminal entrepreneurs.

Messay Asgedom Gobena is a current Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding (SVNP) scholar with the Wilson Center Africa Program during the spring 2020 term. He is a Ph.D. Candidate studying Peace and Security Studies at Addis Ababa University’s Institute for Peace and Security Studies (IPSS).