Executive Director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, Mr. Antonio Maria Costa:Yemen needs to maintain full control over its territories [Archives:2007/1016/Reportage]

January 15 2007

Interviewed by Raidan Al-Saqqaf
[email protected]

What's the motivation for and the objectives of your visit to Yemen?

First and foremost, I'd like to pay tribute to the Yemeni government for their important efforts certainly to stabilize the economy, which isn't my area, but the general security situation in the country. Yemen is being affected by developments taking place abroad and we intend to help Yemen resist the impact these events and trends have upon it, such as terrorism, trafficking, narcotics, etc., as well as help Yemen maintain its stability and security.

Describe the nature of the relationship and areas of cooperation between the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime and the Yemeni government and any future plans for cooperation.

So far, our office hasn't been active in Yemen, but we have offices in Cairo, which provide operational support to many Arab countries. Future plans are maturing, including opening two sub-regional offices in order to intensify our support to Arab nations. One office will be in Libya, with a $12-15 million endowment to operate in North Africa. The second will be in Abu Dhabi and we're hoping for a $15-20 million endowment to operate in that region.

Of course, as you know, GCC nations are pretty well off, but they need technical advisory services and can afford to pay anything they must to protect their security. I've asked that the Abu Dhabi regional office extend its operations to Yemen.

Although Yemen isn't a rich country, it requires assistance because, as I mentioned earlier, it's on the receiving end of a lot of international negative trends, be it trafficking, insecurity, terrorism, etc.

After meeting with several Yemeni officials, including Ministry of Interior staff, what are your perceptions about Yemen's security situation?

My feeling is that security remains a very big concern for authorities. It's also a major threat because Yemen's 2,500 kilometers of coastline and its lengthy unprotected land border with Saudi Arabia are very exposed.

In the past, say 500 years ago, Yemen was part of trade from the Far East into the Mediterranean and Africa because it was a prime location along the trade route. Today, Yemen still is a prime location for all trends, whether positive or negative. So, because of its exposure, openness and vulnerabilities, Yemen has suffered.

We know some problems were domestic, such as the Civil War, while others were imported, such as attacks by Al-Qaeda, insurgencies and militants. Since the major terrorist attacks in 2001 and 2002, the situation has stabilized – even more so since 2004.

I can see the progress in stabilization, for example, in the willingness of tourists to visit and the willingness of foreign investors to come as an indicator of stability because investors and tourists tend to run if there are problems. We'd like to help Yemen and indeed this has happened since 2004, but we'd now like to help Yemen even more in this regard.

Can you tell us about your sources of information on Yemen?

Actually, for the time being, we don't have that many sources of information because we don't have any ground presence in Yemen and we don't deal much with Non-Governmental Organizations. I've met with lots of media representatives and I spoke to many individuals in various parts of Yemen, including Aden, the harbor and beyond, but for the time being, we don't yet have strong sources of information about Yemen.

However, the other source of information we have is the network of other U.N. agencies and the U.N. country team, which I met here in Sana'a a few days ago, and all of the representatives of U.N. bodies, who gave me a very comprehensive briefing on the situation – at times consistent with what the government is saying and at times perhaps not so consistent with what the government is saying, but it's nice to diversify.

In your opinion, how qualified are Yemen's security agencies in their current abilities to combat organized crime, should such a phenomenon arise?

They need assistance to recognize Yemen's vulnerabilities and the risk from imported problems. They require training, equipment and IT in order to develop databanks and matching information to see when criminals move from one governorate to another and so forth.

I think we're at the beginning of a process. The drug control agency is relatively new, but it's made major progress. The Coast Guard also is very new with much progress to be made. The anti-money laundering body also is new. So in a sense, the government and the nation has realized that it needs all of these instruments and bodies in place to control criminal trends, but they're very new and inexperienced and therefore, they need assistance.

That's from a control perspective, but what about the criminals themselves, considering the easy access to weapons, the relative unsophistication of police forces and the economic hardships many face? Drawing on your experiences in other countries, do such factors constitute a recipe for the emergence of organized crime in Yemen?

At the moment, I don't see organized crime networks being born here in Yemen. It may be a cultural issue because I found Yemenis to be a peace-loving society, which doesn't even have a history of violence. By the international standards for crime, there isn't much crime being committed in the country itself, even in Yemeni cities.

There are cities in the world – it's needless to mention in Africa and Latin America – that are off-limits where I can't go and even the police can't go. Such cities also exist in the United States, by the way. You don't have that here, so I don't see Yemen as being a source for organized crime.

But certainly because of its nature and geographic location at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen always has been a central place for trade, not only because of the overland Silk Road, but also the spice trade sea routes.

Yemen is an obvious midpoint for trade, which we call a transit or transshipment point, and that's where we see its vulnerabilities, coupled with what we said earlier about its inexperienced law enforcement agencies.

You see, criminals look for weak points to enter and if Yemen is weak, then they enter Yemen. If Somalia and the neighboring Horn of Africa are weak, then they enter Somalia. If Afghanistan is weak, then they enter Afghanistan.

I don't see an emergence of organized crime, but I could see a growing presence of foreign organized crime elements if the government doesn't continue its efforts; therefore, we need the Yemeni government to continue its efforts.

Recurring escapes from Yemeni jails has created a negative perception about the security agencies' infrastructure. What help can your office, the U.N. and the international community offer in this regard?

Well, I visited the central prison, Noman Al-Masoudi was with me, and I was impressed – nice people. Obviously, corruption is a problem everywhere in the world. Some people just walk out the main gate and we need to stop that. We have a strong program we used in Afghanistan, so we want to have that here as well.

Yemen's strategic location and sociopolitical geography makes it a potential safe haven for international terrorists, thereby jeopardizing regional and international security. How do you evaluate the counterterrorism efforts of Yemeni authorities?

As they say in English, the proof is in the pudding. If you like the pudding, it means the recipe is good. There was a time when there was a problem of a very major terrorist presence in Yemen and attacks on land and at sea. During the past four or five years, this presence has ended and I hope it'll remain so because it means that the government is being taken seriously.

Now, I don't want to get into the ideology of terrorism about who's right or wrong, but certainly any nation experiencing terrorist attacks is blacklisted – no tourists, no foreign investment and no trade – so the country at large suffers greatly. This means that anti-terrorism efforts are here, recognized and able to bring about some results, so the recipe is good, but we need more.

We visited the free trade zone in Aden harbor, but there were only 18 shipping lines when there should be 150. The potential is there, so I inquired about why shipping companies don't go to Aden. I asked some ambassadors here and they said it's because of insurance costs. With the risk of an attack, insurance premiums go through the roof and shipping lines can't afford it; therefore, they forget about Aden and Yemen.

In order to keep insurance costs against terrorism low for shipping lines to stop here, Yemen must fight terrorism even more effectively. That's what we'd like to begin with shortly in a few months, to be able to place a counterterrorism and terrorism prevention official from our office here in order to assist Yemeni authorities.

Bearing in mind the failed attempts to legislate an anti-arms possession law, which the Yemeni Parliament blocked, in your view, how effective is the current legal framework in combating crime and what sort of reforms might be needed?

It's inadequate and I'll tell you why. I've been raising this same point with the authorities. The crimes we deal with as the U.N. aren't petty crimes like robbery or even rape and murder because those are under national jurisdiction. We deal with organized crime like terrorism, counterfeiting, organized money laundering, etc.

In order to foster internationally joint work in this area, the U.N. and numerous member states have agreed on five major international agreements: a convention against organized crime, a convention against corruption, a protocol against trafficking humans, a protocol against arms trafficking and a protocol against smuggling migrants.

These are the major international agreements and they've entered into force. Approximately 100 countries already have ratified the convention against organized crime and 80 have ratified the convention against corruption. However, Yemen didn't sign or ratify any of these five agreements, so I've been telling your government, “Come on,” regarding signing the conventions.

The interesting thing about your government is that it isn't against the agreements. It's a good and serious government, but they say it can wait until tomorrow and then the next day and then going through Parliament, etc. So, that's the obstacle, although we'd like to help your government.

Yemen's security problems include corruption, terrorism, trafficking humans, refugees, piracy in the Gulf of Aden, arms trade and smuggling goods, among others. What should the Yemeni government's priorities be?

First and foremost, ratify the international agreements. Second, establish domestic legislation in Parliament to deal with all of these areas. Regarding corruption, there's a new agency here which we met. There's another new agency regarding money laundering and trafficking from abroad, there's the Coast Guard which we met, etc.

In my view, controlling the territory is the foremost priority. We traveled to Marib governorate yesterday under heavy escort. We were told that by U.N. standards, that's an area of Yemen that's security degree two. Degree one means everything's OK, whereas two means one can travel only with an escort. This means that the Yemeni government doesn't have full control of the territory; otherwise, you wouldn't need an escort.

And the same is at sea, as the Coast Guard is very new and there's almost no control over the Yemeni waters. So, first and foremost- if we can get the money – I'd like to assist Yemen to strengthen its border control and strengthen control over all territories. I understand that there are tribal presences and there are contrasts between the tribes, but Yemen is now united and it's time to bond together and look ahead to the nation's development.

Although qat is said to be a narcotic drug and is banned in many countries, it constitutes 10 percent of Yemeni agricultural production and its use is widespread. What's your office's stance regarding qat?

This is a tricky question. Qat isn't a narcotic drug. Let me put it this way, I'm in charge of drugs in the world for the U.N., so I'm basing my work on conventions and international agreements. There are three such agreements – 1961, 1971 and 1988, which define what is a drug, which commodities are drugs, how to control and/or correct their use, cultivation, production, trade of drugs, etc. Qat isn't among them.

From my vantage point, there's nothing I can do, but when I met with U.N. officials like the World Food program, the U.N. Agricultural Development and the World Bank, among other bodies, they were very concerned about qat due to its health consequences, especially for young bodies.

I've heard that whenever there's a genuine effort to provide food to youngsters going to school, they take the food home and share it with their family. There's evidence that qat chewing and the liquids and juices from chewing deflate the body's proteins. So, if we spend so much money and search worldwide for money to provide food for people who then chew qat, which fights against that food, then that's a problem.

Then there's the problem of productivity. Some chew while working. For example, my driver yesterday had to chew qat in order to drive the car or do something else. However, many others just sit around chewing qat for up to six or seven hours. I'd like them to work! So, there's the productivity loss.

Then there's this agricultural problem. I'm told that cultivating qat consumes up to one-third of all water and now there's very little water in Yemen. We traveled to Kawkaban and I saw the qat fields there. If Yemen was producing coffee and selling it abroad, it would be far better for the country than producing leaves that are chewed leisurely.

So, there are social, environmental and economic problems, but not necessarily a narcotic problem. It's less my business than it is the business of other U.N. institutions.

It's said that corruption is the most sophisticated phenomenon of organized crime in Yemen, with hands reaching into government circles. What will it take to combat this sort of organized crime?

Corruption is a big problem everywhere. It's a problem because money – oil money – that should be used for the country and spent on roads and schools is taken away by some corrupt official. Corruption is also serious not only because money is stolen, but because of its consequences.

For example, when an official turns his head and allows a cargo to go ahead with weapons, drugs or people inside, it does a lot of additional damage. It could be terrorism or it could be something else. So, corruption is serious because of the damage it does, as well as the consequences in which it results.

We have an international convention against corruption. Yemen isn't a part of it, but I'd like Yemen to be a part of it. A new anti-corruption body or authority is in the establishment process and I hope it'll be strong enough. We specialize in assisting this type of authority by making it strong and honest with hi-tech technology to monitor financial transactions and check what officials do.

The convention is divided into four parts and has a very important preventative set of articles dealing with officials disclosing what they receive, their salary and disclosing what they own to determine why they drive a Mercedes when they only make a $200 income. You know there's something wrong there. In the tender process, when there's a road to be built, it shouldn't go to the one who has a lot of money to grease his way. This is prevention.

We also have criminalization, so we need precise articles in the penal code dealing with embezzlement, graft, abuse of power, illicit appropriation of state assets, etc. We want to see this legislation. Then we have international agreements because we need to extradite individuals. There are people from Yemen who go somewhere else and put their money there, so there are international agreements to bring such individuals back with mutual international legal assistance.

The last is recovery of assets because there's money abroad, perhaps not so much from Yemen, but from countries like Nigeria. We were told that there are billions of dollars which ought to be brought back to build roads; however, Yemen is passive regarding this convention, so I invite it to do something and we'll help it succeed.

Did meet with any civil society representatives during your visit? What role can and should civil society and NGOs play in combating organized crime in Yemen?

No, I didn't meet with any civil society representatives during this short period, as I spoke mainly with the government, the media and the U.N. However, civil society's role is important everywhere in all areas, especially drug prevention and stimulating the government.

NGOs are society's eyes and ears – they're the whistleblowers. If there's something wrong, they report it, informing us and the government. We have a great expectation that civil society can play an important role, especially helping women to become more active in politics and the government.

You traveled to several parts of the country. What can you tell us about your experience as a tourist in Yemen?

I'd like many more tourists to come. I'm Italian and many Italians visit Yemen, so I invite many more to come. Of course, Yemen requires security and the hotel structure is OK because there were good hotels in everywhere we visited. There are also spectacular restaurants with great food and they're not expensive.

The conditions are there, but people don't hear about Yemen, so Yemen must sell itself more abroad in terms of publicity and media because it has a lot to offer. This is a historic place because much of humanity was developed here, including trade, commerce and culture. The other day, we visited ruins that were 5,000 years old – not many countries can claim the same and represent such a proud history! This is a proud society, proud of what it has done during the past five millenniums and even longer.

I myself would like to become a promoter for tourism in Yemen. I'm planning to return on my own, not sponsored by the Yemeni government, and bring my family to show then what humanity did in this part of the world so long ago.

I'm glad to see that Yemen has made a new friend in you.

Oh yes. I must add that I didn't know much about Yemen before coming here, but it's certainly a sensational nation that has protected its treasures quiet well. The Old City of Sana'a is still vibrant compared to old cities in other parts of the world, which have been destroyed and rebuilt.

But here you have kilometers of buildings that are well-kept as they were 400 or 500 years ago and this is amazing. The sea in the front and the desert behind have kept this cocoon protected, which is quite amazing.

Antonio Maria Costa has previously worked with the United Nations and the European Commission in several posts, including senior economist and Under-Secretary-General at OECD and the European Commission's Director-General for Economics and Finance.