• English

On UNGA margins, world leaders bolster bedrock of international law

Heads of State, Foreign Ministers, and other top representatives are converging to endorse multilateral treaties which form the bedrock of international legal frameworks.

“Multilateral treaties are essential tools for Member States to achieve the objectives of the UN Charter,” emphasized David Nanopoulos, Chief of the Treaty Section at the UN Office for Legal Affairs (OLA).

The remarkable reversal on ozone, driven by the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, serves as a testament to the potency of such multilateral agreements.

“Universal participation in these treaties is absolutely fundamental to their success,” Mr. Nanopoulos added.

Treaties in focus

This year, two landmark treaties are in focus: the Convention on the International Effects of Judicial Sales of Ships, and the Agreement under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea on the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Marine Biological Diversity of Areas beyond National Jurisdiction, commonly known as the BBNJ treaty or high seas treaty.

The former, focused on trade and signed by 15 nations as of Tuesday, aims to shore up international law regarding ship sales.

The landmark BBNJ treaty was agreed in June, following nearly two decades of negotiations, and strengthens the legal regime in the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity, in over two-thirds of the world’s ocean.

Other treaties open for signature include those relating to environment, human rights, disarmament, and combatting transnational organized crime.

Catherine Colonna, Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs of France, signs the BBNJ treaty at the UN Treaty Event.
United Nations/Paulina Kubiak

Catherine Colonna, Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs of France, signs the BBNJ treaty at the UN Treaty Event.

Long legacy

The Treaty Event, established in 2000 by former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, capitalizes on the UN General Assembly’s annual high-level week to garner global leader support for multilateral treaties and the rule of law.

This initiative has seen substantial success, with over 2,000 treaty actions secured.

As the depository of multilateral treaties, the UN Secretary-General plays a pivotal role in their administration, ensuring transparency and facilitating cooperation among Member States, thereby upholding international law and principles of diplomacy. 

Meth trafficking surges in and around Afghanistan

Understanding Illegal Methamphetamine Manufacture in Afghanistan, highlights a drastic increase in seizures of the drug, from 2.5 tons in 2017 to 29.7 tons in 2021.

In its street drug form, meth or “crystal meth” it is a powerful and highly addictive stimulant that impacts the central nervous system and can cause a rapid or irregular heartbeat.

Seizures suspected to originate in Afghanistan have been reported as far away as Eastern Africa, Southeast Asia, and the European Union

‘Rapidly changing’ markets

The UNODC findings further suggest that heroin trafficking has continued, although at a lower rate, following the Taliban drug ban in April 2022.

The drastic increase in meth seizures in Afghanistan and neighbouring countries indicates that trafficking is expanding, rapidly changing illicit drug markets traditionally dominated by opiates hailing from Afghanistan.

“The surge in methamphetamine trafficking in Afghanistan and the region suggests a significant shift in the illicit drug market and demands our immediate attention.

“Regional coordination targeting the diversion and smuggling of chemical precursors is essential to stopping the continued expansion of illicit methamphetamine manufacture in and around Afghanistan,” said Ghada Waly, Executive Director of UNODC.

“This new UNODC report aims to provide the international community with vital information to tackle the growing synthetic drug threat.”

Rise of synthetics

The report also analyses the different chemicals used to produce the drug. Coverage of suspected meth manufacturing in Afghanistan has often focused on the use of the ephedra plant, which grows abundantly in the region and contains ephedrines – a chemical that can be extracted to make the drug.

Although ephedra is cheaper to use in the short-term, common cold medications and industrial-grade chemicals are more efficient and cost-effective for meth manufacturing and thus pose a far bigger risk, the report warns.

Such chemicals are legally produced and traded in large quantities in the region and are often easily accessible to drug producers.

The report notes that an over-emphasis on ephedra risks undermining effective law enforcement responses, which need to focus on preventing and curbing the diversion and smuggling of bulk chemical precursors, as well.

Regional approach

The report emphasizes that regionally coordinated policing efforts may be more effective in preventing and curbing the long-term expansion of illicit meth manufacture in Afghanistan and the wider region.

UNODC will publish its annual Afghanistan opium cultivation survey next month.

Better data on corruption can reduce its impact, support sustainable development

Ghada Waly, Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), was speaking at the opening of the first global conference on the topic. 

Corruption costs the world roughly $2.6 trillion annually, according to the UN Development Programme (UNDP) – money that could go towards fighting hunger, providing healthcare, and ensuring all children have access to quality education. 

Tweet URL

“Developing a common approach to measuring corruption can introduce much-needed clarity, helping us to determine causes, consequences, and trends, to identify gaps and weaknesses, to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of anti-corruption policies, and most importantly to assess progress,” Ms. Waly said. 

“Along with the adequate legal framework and strong institutions in place, this will enable a stronger response, and act as a springboard for efforts to achieve the SDGs,” she added. 

A distorted picture 

Ms. Waly acknowledged that measuring corruption is not an easy task. Current methodologies are often unclear, with questions around the accuracy and reliability of available numbers and statistics. 

“Many estimates are based on limited indicators, while some frameworks prioritize narrow groups of stakeholders and their perceptions,” she said.

“This has often painted an incomplete or distorted picture, including for many countries in the global South that are perceived to be more corrupt by default.” 

Framework for measurement 

UNODC is developing a statistical framework for countries to measure corruption domestically, which proposes a common set of definitions, indicators, methods, and sources, and provides guidance on how to collect and analyse data holistically. 

Ms. Waly said the hope is that it will be presented at a conference this December for States party to the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), adopted 20 years ago. 

The development of the framework builds on UNODC’s work helping countries collect data on corruption, she added.   

Support to countries 

The Office providescapacity-building and technical guidance to several countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America to undertake corruption surveys. 

In 2018, UNODC partnered with UNDP to develop a manual on measuring bribery and other related forms of corruption through sample surveys, to advance the SDGs. 

“The impact of corruption is tangible, far-reaching, and profoundly damaging. By better measuring corruption, we can better mitigate that impact,” she said. 

The Global Conference on Harnessing Data to Improve Corruption Measurement brings together policymakers, scientists, practitioners and experts from governments, civil society and academia. 

The two-day meeting concludes on Friday. 


Hundreds of thousands trafficked into online criminality across SE Asia

OHCHR said that at least 120,000 people across Myanmar and another 100,000 in Cambodia may be held in situations where they are forced to execute lucrative online scams – from illegal gambling to crypto fraud.

Other States including Lao PDR, the Philippines and Thailand have also been identified as main countries of destination or transit.

Victims, not criminals

“People who are coerced into working in these scamming operations endure inhumane treatment while being forced to carry out crimes,” said UN rights chief Volker Türk. “They are victims. They are not criminals,” he insisted.

The latest OHCHR report sheds new light on cybercrime scams that have become a major issue in Asia, with many workers trapped and forced to participate in scams targeting people over the internet.

The report notes workers face a range of serious human rights violations, and many have been subjected to abuses such as torture, arbitrary detention, sexual violence and forced labour.

Victims of such operations can be scammed an average of $160,000 each, often through sophisticated scripts sent via unregulated social media applications.

According OHCHR, these victims come from across the ASEAN region as well as mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, South Asia and even further afield from Africa and Latin America.

Tweet URL

Mr. Türk called on States to ensure justice “for the people who have been so horrifically abused.” 

Noticeable trends

Speaking in Geneva, Pia Oberoi, OHCHR’s Senior Advisor on Migration and Human Rights in Asia Pacific, said ongoing regional “economic distress” paired with the COVID-19 pandemic has meant there is a lack of regular and safe pathways towards decent work opportunities.

“This has meant populations are more likely to rely on recruitment forums or intermediaries,” so criminal gangs are increasingly targeting individuals through these platforms, suggesting victims are destined for real jobs.

“There weren’t red flags being raised” – particularly for the more educated, multilingual young men who the report notes are frequent victims.

“It follows a pattern of how labour migration has taken place in the region, and also speaks to the sophistication of these fraudulent recruitments,” added Ms. Oberoi.

Weak regulations

According to OHCHR, the COVID-19 pandemic and associated response measures had a drastic impact on illicit activities across the region – with increased virtual work and the movement of business to less regulated spaces. 

Ms. Oberoi said the situation is “unfolding in locations where regulation is weak,” such as conflict affected border areas in Myanmar, “with little to no rule of law” and in “laxly regulated jurisdictions such as special economic zones in Laos PDR and Cambodia.” 

Describing the trends across the region, she added that the ability of ASEAN nationals to travel across borders without a visa, also means there is a “lack of protection sensitive screening”, as officials don’t always have the training to “identify protection sensitive responses.”

Justice for victims

Although there are several regional legal frameworks to prosecute such crimes, OHCHR said there is a lack of implementation by States and often forced criminality is not seen as a legal violation.   

Even when victims are rescued or escape, rather than being protected and given access to the rehabilitation and remedy they need, they are often subjected to criminal prosecution or immigration penalties, OHCHR said. 

“All affected States need to summon the political will to strengthen human rights and improve governance and the rule of law, including through serious and sustained efforts to tackle corruption,” said Mr. Türk.

“Only such a holistic approach can break the cycle of impunity and ensure protection and justice for the people who have been so horrifically abused.”

Malawi: Truck drivers learn about risks of human trafficking

“I used to transport sugar from Malawi,” said an anonymous driver, who was arrested for migrant trafficking. “In 2016, I had to wait for several days at a border crossing in Tanzania for customs checks. I was approached by a man who offered me a lot of money to transport goats.”

His story is not unique.

Malawi is located at the crossroads of several significant flows of people fleeing conflict, instability, and poverty in Central Africa and the Horn of Africa.

Such movements provide lucrative opportunities for smugglers and traffickers and for Malawi’s 5,000 registered international truck drivers.

The driver who shared his story said he was paid in advance, and the man who offered him the deal took photos of both him and his truck. The driver proceeded to spend some of the money and send more to his wife.

“On the day I was due to leave, the man told me the ‘goats’ were actually 30 illegal migrants from Ethiopia,” he said. “They looked very sick, tired, and malnourished. He said I had to take them to a location in Malawi that’s close to a large refugee camp.”

Smuggler threats

A truck travels up to East Africa.
© ILO/Marcel Crozet

A truck travels up to East Africa.

When the driver tried to protest, the smuggler demanded his money back and threatened to take the truck and share photos of him with the authorities.

“This is how it all started, and soon it became my main business,” he said. “The man would pay me a lot of money and escort me in a small car, so he could bribe corrupt police and immigration officers along the way.”

According to the driver, he was initially not aware that what he was doing was illegal.

Then, in 2019, he was arrested in Mozambique while transporting 72 migrants from Malawi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

“Now I’m sick, unemployed, and divorced,” the driver said.

Trafficking risks

Truck drivers based in Malawi are now learning about the risks of transporting migrants and trafficking victims, thanks to a programme supported by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The courses, which began in February, are already proving to be a success.

Feckson Chimodzi, a truck driver who transports farming products from countries in Southern Africa into Malawi and also participated in the course, said drivers who work with smugglers and traffickers often do it “out of necessity” to supplement their low salaries.

“Our employers need to improve our working conditions and give us comprehensive training about the dangers of getting involved in these crimes,” Mr. Chimodzi said.

Strict penalties

Maxwell Matewere, addresses a local community in Malawi about the threat of human trafficking.

Maxwell Matewere, addresses a local community in Malawi about the threat of human trafficking.

Criminals who smuggle or traffic humans within countries or across borders use all possible routes and modes of transportation to transfer people for profit and exploitation.

If apprehended by authorities, the truck drivers are usually arrested and imprisoned, explained Maxwell Matewere, a UNODC National Project Officer on trafficking in persons.

“There’s a lack of understanding of human trafficking and migrant smuggling in the region, and payment for illegally transporting people is much larger than the regular truck driver’s salary,” said Mr. Matewere, who conducts the training.

“Most drivers know what they’re doing is illegal, but are told that when they cross borders, corrupt officials will let them pass,” he said. “So, they take the money and the risk.”

Vehicle confiscations and arrests

Migrants travel by foot and by vehicle across Africa in order to reach Europe and other destinations.
IOM/Alexander Bee

Migrants travel by foot and by vehicle across Africa in order to reach Europe and other destinations.

Following a series of vehicle confiscations and arrests in neighbouring countries, the Professional Drivers Association of Malawi asked UNODC to train its members on the dangers of transporting smuggled migrants and victims of trafficking.

A total of four courses for around 400 drivers have been conducted, with further sessions scheduled in October. The participants are informed about the penalties they face if caught, including the loss of both their truck and employment, a criminal record, and potential imprisonment of up to 14 years in a foreign country.

Positive impact, new allies

Since the start of the UNODC courses, the Professional Drivers Association has reported a reduction in the number of arrests of Malawian drivers on charges of migrant smuggling and human trafficking.

Many drivers who attended the training are proving to be “very useful allies” in the prevention and detection of cases of migrant smuggling and human trafficking, said Mr. Matewere said.

SDG 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions.
United Nations

“We explain that migrant smuggling and human trafficking are serious organized criminal activities punishable by laws in Malawi and the countries the drivers transit, such as Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, and Mozambique,” he said.

“Furthermore, the drivers are told that these crimes are linked to exploitation, abuse, and violence and can even result in death, and we tell them about the connections to other illicit activities such as drugs and firearms smuggling,” he added.

Last year, Malawi’s Ministry for Homeland Security appointed a new group of law enforcement officers to counter the increasing cases of migrant smuggling and human trafficking.

“We’ve established contact between the truck drivers we trained and this specialised unit, so they now know who to inform when they’ve been approached by criminals to carry people in their vehicles,” Mr. Matewere said.

Since May, seven attempts of human trafficking and migrant smuggling have been stopped by authorities at border crossings due to information from truck drivers. A recent case involved 40 Malawians, including children, who were being taken in three trucks to South Africa and intercepted on the border with Zambia.

The awareness-raising courses are organized through UNODC’s human trafficking and migrant smuggling section, with the cooperation of Malawi’s Ministry of Homeland Security and financial support from the Government of Sweden.

Find out more about how UNODC is tackling human trafficking and migrant smuggling here.

Russia: Latest Navalny sentence raises serious concerns, UN rights chief says

Volker Türk said the 19-year sentence was based on vague and overly broad charges of “extremism” and followed a closed trial on the premises of the prison where Mr. Navalny is already serving two other sentences amounting to 11 and a half years.

Tweet URL

He recalled that under international human rights law, States have an obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the full range of fair trial and due process rights to all individuals deprived of their liberty.  

“I call on the Russian authorities to take measures to respect these obligations by immediately ceasing violations of Navalny’s human rights and release him,” the rights chief said.

Repressive crackdown

Mr. Türk said this latest sentence against Mr. Navalny comes amid an increasingly repressive crackdown on freedom of expression and political opposition in Russia.

Since February 2022, some 20,000 people have been arrested, many of them briefly, for various actions against Russia’s war against Ukraine, including protesting and posting on social media.

Several were jailed for allegedly spreading false information about the actions of the military and hundreds more have been given administrative fines for “discrediting” the Russian Army, he added.

There has also been a sharp increase in the use of the espionage and treason provisions of the Criminal Code to try and convict people that were merely exercising their human rights.

Mr. Türk called for a transparent and impartial review of such cases, in accordance with international human rights norms.

“Deprivation of liberty for the exercise of human rights, including the freedom of opinion, expression, peaceful assembly and association, constitutes arbitrary detention under international human rights law,” he said, adding that “all those arbitrarily detained should be released immediately.”

The UN Secretary-General supports the High Commissioner’s statement, his Deputy Spokesperson said during the daily press briefing at UN Headquarters in New York.  

UN calls for urgent action against human trafficking

In his message for the Day, UN chief António Guterres called human trafficking “a heinous violation of fundamental human rights and freedoms.” He said that this crime preys on vulnerability and thrives in times of conflict and instability, with more and more people targeted today. 

“The majority of detected victims are women and children, many of whom suffer brutal violence, forced labour, and horrific sexual exploitation and abuse,” the Secretary-General said, noting that traffickers continue to operate with impunity and their crimes are receiving “not nearly enough attention.” 

“We must strengthen law enforcement to bring criminals that commodify human beings to justice. And we must do more to help survivors rebuild their lives,” he added, calling for joint efforts to “build a world where no one can ever be bought, sold, or exploited.” 

Step up counter-trafficking efforts

According to the 2022 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, published by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), more than 50 per cent of cases of human trafficking are brought forward by victims or their families, with authorities struggling to detect and protect trafficking victims, which is a concerning new trend compared to previous years. 

Tweet URL

The findings also show that women and girls, who account for around 60 percent of detected victims, are more likely to suffer sexual exploitation and higher levels of violence at the hands of their captors, while men and boys are being increasingly exploited for forced labour and criminal activities.

The campaign for the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons 2023, led by UNODC, aims to raise awareness of the current disturbing developments and trends, asking governments, law enforcement, public services and civil society to strengthen prevention, identify and support victims, and end impunity.

A crime in plain sight

Millions of victims of human trafficking are going unnoticed around the world, even though many walk among us every day – on street corners, at construction sites, or in factories and public venues. 

The specificity of this crime is such that many victims cannot call for help, UNODC said. Having no legal status in a country where they come in search of a better life, victims become shackled by the false promises of traffickers.

“Human trafficking is a crime that hides not just in the shadows but in plain sight,” UNODC’s Executive Director Ghada Waly said in her video message for the Day.

She called for stepping up efforts to reach every trafficking victim, including by strengthening detection, investigating cases, and prosecuting the criminals involved. More action is also needed to identify, assist, and support survivors. 

This can be achieved through consolidated work of all sectors of society – from healthcare, to social services to law enforcement, she said.

“The general public can help too, by reporting suspicious activities and services that may exploit trafficking victims, while the voice of civil society is crucial in raising awareness, as well as mobilizing and providing support to those in need,” the UNODC chief added.


Niger: Security Council strongly condemns ‘efforts to unconstitutionally change’ Government

The members of the Security Council strongly condemned the efforts to unconstitutionally change the legitimate government of the Republic of Niger on 26 July 2023. 

Earlier this week, the demand to release the President of Niger was voiced by the UN Secretary-General António Guterres. Late on Wednesday, a group of Nigerien military officers made a television announcement declaring a coup, after members of the president’s own guard detained him inside his offices in the capital city of Niamey. According to news reports, the attempted coup did not have the backing of the entire military, but the head of the army announced that he supported the move.

In their statement, the Security Council members expressed concern over the negative impact of unconstitutional changes of government in the region, increase in terrorist activities and the dire socio-economic situation. They also underlined their regret over the developments in Niger, which undermine efforts at consolidating the institutions of governance and peace in that country.

Support to international formats

The Council expressed support for the efforts of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union (AU) and the United Nations and welcomed their statements reaffirming their opposition to any seizure of power by unconstitutional means, as well as the calls to the forces involved to refrain from violence, hand over power and return to their barracks.  

Reiterating support for efforts to reverse unconstitutional government changes, the Council backed ECOWAS and the AU in strengthening governance and normative frameworks. In solidarity with the people of Niger, the Council emphasized the importance of protecting civilians and providing humanitarian assistance during this challenging time.

Mandela’s legacy thrives as today's blueprint for prisoners’ rights

Nearly 12 million people are imprisoned globally, with almost one third awaiting sentencing, at a time when prisons are overcrowded in half of all countries, according to a new UN report released on Tuesday. On the occasion of Nelson Mandela International Day, marked on 18 July, UN News took a look at some ongoing efforts.

The legacy of the late former President of South Africa, who had been incarcerated under the country’s apartheid regime for 27 years, lives on, including in supporting prisoners’ rights.

‘Mandela Rules’

Nelson Mandela, Deputy President of the African National Congress of South Africa, raises his fist in the air while addressing the Special Committee Against Apartheid in the General Assembly Hall in 1990 before becoming President of South Africa. (file)
UN Photo/Pernaca Sudhakaran

Nelson Mandela, Deputy President of the African National Congress of South Africa, raises his fist in the air while addressing the Special Committee Against Apartheid in the General Assembly Hall in 1990 before becoming President of South Africa. (file)

Mr. Mandela’s words resonate even today among inmates and prison staff alike around the world: “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” – Nelson Mandela

UN Secretary-General António Guterres said on Tuesday that Mr. Mandela “was a colossus of courage and conviction, a leader of immense achievement and extraordinary humanity, a giant of our times, whose legacy we best honour through action”.

Against a backdrop of current reports of human rights violations against inmates from Honduras to Iran alongside a rise in violent extremism and recruitment by terrorists behind bars in some countries, new prison reform initiatives are taking action in all regions. They are guided by the Mandela Rules, or, as they are officially known, The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, which offers a 21st century blueprint for good prison management.


Prisoners in half of all countries are held in overcrowded prison sytems.

Prisoners in half of all countries are held in overcrowded prison sytems.

The theme of this year’s Mandela Day is “prisoners matter”, with the Mandela Rules providing a guide. The rules offer clear benchmarks for prison officials on safety, security, and the humane treatment of inmates. As custodian of the rules, the UN Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) works to promote and support their adoption worldwide.

From a free self-paced e-learning courses to equipping training facilities with laptops and internet services, the agency and its partners also work on community involvement in inmate rehabilitation and reintegration.

In Yola, Nigeria, where the prison population has increased more than 25 per cent since 2000, the agency organized a platform for community leaders and the Nigerian Correctional Service to foster a more integrated approach towards reintegrating inmates.

Global initiatives

More broadly, the agency’s prisoner rehabilitation initiative covers education, vocational training, and employment during incarceration. The goal is to contribute to their employability after release, thus reducing chances of recidivism.

The agency explained that prisoners are often a forgotten population, with many in society thinking about them as separate from the rest of society. But, they are a product of and remain part of society, and the vast majority of prisoners will eventually be released.

“What happens to people in the course of imprisonment affects all of us in many ways: public safety, our health, our community’s finances, social cohesion, and ultimately the human dignity of us all,” according to UNODC. “When we reduce the scope of imprisonment, improve prison conditions, and enhance social reintegration prospects, we are all better off. Prisoners matter.”

Combatting violent extremism

Prisoners doing carpentry work as part of rehabilitation at Murchison Bay Prison, Luzira, Uganda.

Prisoners doing carpentry work as part of rehabilitation at Murchison Bay Prison, Luzira, Uganda.

A five-year effort with UNODC and partners has reached thousands of inmates in Kazakhstan, Tunisia, and Uganda in a bid to prevent the spread of violent extremism in prison settings.

“Prisons play a crucial role in tackling this challenge by ensuring the secure and safe custody of violent extremist prisoners, preventing radicalization to violence within prisons, disengaging prisoners from future violence, and preparing released persons for reintegration into the community,” according to the agency.

Achievements included training more than 6,500 prison officers, launching Tunisia’s first-ever research centre on violent extremism in prisons, and establishing rehabilitation and reintegration programmes for inmates, from computer literacy to furniture-making.

The joint effort also supported prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic, including sharing guidance documents, providing medical equipment, and vaccinating more than 12,000 prisoners, prison staff, and family members in Uganda.

Second chances

A UN-supported programme at the Tangerang Class IIA Correctional Facility in Indonesia is helping inmates to learn job skills.
UNIC Jakarta

A UN-supported programme at the Tangerang Class IIA Correctional Facility in Indonesia is helping inmates to learn job skills.

For some prisoners, the results are worth these myriad efforts. Adamu from Nigeria learned millinery in prison, taking his talents forward upon release. He is now an employer who makes fine caps popular with local traditional leaders.

Denny, who is halfway through his five-year sentence in Indonesia, is looking forward to getting out and getting a job in a coffee shop. He spends days in vocational training and religious studies.

“My main drive right now is to be a better person than I was before,” he said, adding that until that day, he will focus brewing perfect cappuccinos in barista classes.

When Mr. dos Santos left prison in Brazil in 2019, he asked for help and got it from the Social Office, supported by the UN Development Programme (UNDP).

“I arrived here and noticed that the doors were open,” he said, describing his first visit. “They treated me very well and showed me there’s a second chance.”

* Names have been changed to protect their privacy.

Snapshot of prisons today

UNODC launched a new report on Tuesday, providing a look at people held in prison, including the latest data. Here are some highlights:

  • Since 2000, the world’s prison population has increased by more than 25 per cent.
  • One in every three prisoners worldwide is held without having been found guilty by a court of justice.
  • In one out of five countries with available data, prisoners outnumbered the prison capacity by more than 150 per cent.
  • Northern America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Eastern Europe have experienced long-term decreases of up to 27 per cent in imprisonment rates since 2000, while Latin America, Australia, and New Zealand have seen growth of up to 68 per cent over the last two decades.
  • Most persons detained in prison globally are men (93 per cent).
  • Over the last 20 years, the number of women in prisons has increased by 33 per cent while there was a 25 per cent increase in the number of male inmates.

Learn more about how UNODC is working with nations to implement prison reform here.

Bringing a war criminal to justice

The trial of Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka was the most emblematic, complex case the court in North Kivu province had ever handled, and its proceedings and final judgement in 2020 provide a compelling example of how to bring a war criminal to justice.

Ahead of the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) Day of International Criminal Justice, which marks the adoption of its founding UN treaty, the Rome Statute, UN News took a closer look at a trial that provides an important case study for nations meting out criminal justice around the world.

The case also illustrates the importance of UN peace operations’ support to national justice and security institutions.

The crimes: ‘On a scale never seen’

Ntabo Sheka (second from left) led an armed group in eastern DR Congo. (file)

Ntabo Sheka (second from left) led an armed group in eastern DR Congo. (file)

On 30 July 2010, armed members of the militia Nduma Défense of Congo (NDC) fanned out across 13 remote villages in restive, resource-rich Walikale, the largest territory in North Kivu, 150 kilometres west of the provincial capital of Goma.

Situated within a large equatorial forest, the area had been plagued by two decades of conflict, with myriad armed groups fighting to control lucrative mines, including those extracting tin’s primary mineral, cassiterite.

The then 34-year-old Mr. Sheka – a former miner who founded a year earlier what Goma’s chief military prosecutor called the area’s “most organized” armed group, complete with units, brigades, battalions, and companies – had given his orders.

For four days and nights, his recruits discharged them.

“Sheka wasn’t just anyone,” Nadine Sayiba Mpila, Public Prosecutor in Goma, told UN News. “Sheka committed crimes on a scale never seen in DR Congo.”

She described how his soldiers “would slaughter people and put the heads of these people on stakes and walk through the streets of the villages to say this is what awaits you if you don’t denounce what he called ‘the enemies’”.

By 2 August 2010, the armed militia had begun to fully occupy the villages.

The warrant: Wanted for war crimes

A staff member from the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, talks to displaced Congolese women in Lushebere Camp in 2012. (file)
UNHCR/S. Schulman

A staff member from the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, talks to displaced Congolese women in Lushebere Camp in 2012. (file)

Those who could, fled to safety. Some sought medical help from a nearby non-governmental organisation (NGO).

Within two weeks, the survivors’ stories had reached the authorities. Media reports headlined the attacks as “mass rapes”. The UN Mission in the country, MONUSCO, supported the deployment of a police contingent.

By November 2010, a case was brought against the warlord. Congolese authorities then issued a national arrest warrant for Mr. Sheka, and the UN Security Council added him to its sanctions list.

Mandated to protect civilians and support national authorities, MONUSCO launched Operation Silent Valley in early August 2011, helping residents to safely return to their villages.

‘No choice but to surrender’

Residents of Bunia, DR Congo, protested the capture of Goma in 2012 by the newly formed M23 armed group. (file)
MONUSCO/Sylvain Liechti

Residents of Bunia, DR Congo, protested the capture of Goma in 2012 by the newly formed M23 armed group. (file)

Mr. Sheka was now a fugitive.

Also known as the Mai-Mai militia, NDC continued to operate in the area along with other armed groups.

“Cornered on all sides, he was now weakened, and had no choice but to surrender,” said Colonel Ndaka Mbwedi Hyppolite, Chief Prosecutor of the Operational Military Court of North Kivu, which tried Mr. Sheka’s case.

He turned himself in on 26 July 2017 to MONUSCO, who handed him over to Congolese authorities, which in turn charged him with war crimes, including murder, sexual slavery, recruitment of children, looting, and rape.

“The time had come to tell the truth and face the consequences of the truth,” Ms. Sayiba said.

The trial: 3,000 pieces of evidence

A crowd watching the trial of Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka. (file)

A crowd watching the trial of Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka. (file)

Ahead of the trial, UN peacekeepers helped to build the detention cells that housed Mr. Sheka and the courtroom itself, where military court proceedings unfolded over two years, pausing from March to June 2020 due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Starting in November 2018, the court would consider 3,000 pieces of evidence and hear from 178 witnesses at 108 hearings.

Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka during his trial for war crimes in DR Congo. (file)

Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka during his trial for war crimes in DR Congo. (file)

Their testimonies played a key role, representing the prosecution’s “last resort” to prove that crimes had been committed, said Patient Iraguha, Senior Legal Advisor for TRIAL International in DRC, who helped authorities with the case.

But, getting victims to testify was a serious challenge, the Congolese prosecutors said.

During the trial, Mr. Sheka had “reached out to certain victims to intimidate them”, jeopardizing their willingness to appear in court. However a joint effort involving the UN and such partners as TRIAL International changed that, Ms. Sayiba explained.

Colonel Ndaka agreed, adding that some rape victims also feared being stigmatised by society.

Protection measures were established, and judicial authorities were able to gather evidence in collaboration with MONUSCO, which also trained the judiciary in international criminal law procedures, giving the court sufficient knowledge to properly investigate the case, he said.

“When the Congolese authorities had to go into the field to investigate or to listen to the victims, they were surrounded by a MONUSCO contingent,” he said. “The victims who did appear, did so thanks to the support provided by our partners.”

UN peacekeepers in eastern DR Congo. (file)

UN peacekeepers in eastern DR Congo. (file)

Tonderai Chikuhwa, Chief of Staff at the UN Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, recalled hearing first-hand about the crimes.

“The harrowing testimonies I heard from survivors in 7 villages from Kibua to Mpofu in Walikale in 2010 are indelibly etched on my mind,” he wrote on social media at the time.

The first witnesses to appear in court were six children, with victims testifying through July 2020.

“After his testimony before the jury, Sheka started crying,” Ms. Sayiba recalled. “A defendant’s tears are a response. I believe Sheka realized that he was now alone. He had to take responsibility for his actions.”

The verdict: Congolese justice ‘did it’

The trial of Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka was held in Goma, DR Congo from 2018 to 2020. (file)

The trial of Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka was held in Goma, DR Congo from 2018 to 2020. (file)

On 23 November 2020, the Operational Military Court sentenced Mr. Sheka to life in prison.

“This marks an important step forward in combating impunity for perpetrators of child recruitment and other grave violations,” the UN Secretary-General wrote about the case in his report on children and armed conflict in the DRC.

Ms. Sayiba said the sentencing sent “a great message” and “an assurance to the victims who could now see that their testimonies were not in vain”.

For Colonel Ndaka, the verdict was “a source of pride for myself, for my country, for Congolese justice”.

Today, the UN continues to support efforts to end impunity in the DRC, Central African Republic, Mali, South Sudan and other nations. In North Kivu, the Public Prosecutor’s Office expanded in June, with UN support, into the Peace Court of Goma.

Mr. Sheka, now 47, continues his life sentence in a facility in the capital, Kinshasa.

“The fact that Sheka was tried and sentenced is proof that the rule of law exists and that you cannot remain unpunished when you have committed the gravest, most abominable crimes,” Colonel Ndaka said. “Congolese justice could do it, with will, determination, and means. It was able to do it, and it did it.”

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and MONUSCO set apart demobilized child soldiers as the Mai-Mai militia surrenders itself to Congolese Government forces. (file)
UN Photo/Sylvain Liechti

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and MONUSCO set apart demobilized child soldiers as the Mai-Mai militia surrenders itself to Congolese Government forces. (file)

Get help now

Send a message with a description of your problem and possible ways of assistance and we will contact you as soon as we consider your problem.

    [recaptcha class:captcha]