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Stronger Legislation Needed to Prevent Environmental Crimes, Says UNODC Report

The UNODC's new report underscores the need for stronger global legislation and enforcement to combat environmental crimes, highlighting significant regional disparities and the exploitation of legal loopholes by illicit organizations.

Saurabh Shukla
Stronger Legislation Needed to Prevent Environmental Crimes, Says UNODC Report (Photo Source: Pixabay)
Stronger Legislation Needed to Prevent Environmental Crimes, Says UNODC Report (Photo Source: Pixabay)

In a recent report launched in Vienna, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has highlighted the urgent need for stronger legislation to deter environmental crimes and expand the range of investigative tools available to law enforcement. The report, titled "The Landscape of Criminalization," represents Part One of the first ever Global Analysis of Crimes that Affect the Environment. It offers a comprehensive examination of how all 193 UN Member States define and punish crimes against nature.

The study covered nine areas of nature-related offenses, including deforestation and logging, noise pollution, fishing, waste management, wildlife protection, and pollution of air, soil, and water. It found that 85 percent of UN Member States have criminalized offenses against wildlife, demonstrating significant global recognition of the importance of wildlife protection.

Further, the report revealed that 45 percent of countries impose penalties of four or more years in prison for certain environmental offenses, classifying them as "serious" crimes under the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC). This convention serves as a universal standard for defining serious crimes.

The report indicates that wildlife and waste-related crimes are the most frequently criminalized, with 164 and 160 countries, respectively, including at least one related criminal offense in their national legislation. In contrast, soil and noise pollution are the least protected, with only 99 and 97 countries, respectively, having criminal provisions.

The severity of penalties for environmental crimes varies significantly by region. For instance, in Oceania, 43 percent of countries treat illegal fishing as a serious crime, leading to four or more years in prison, whereas in Europe, only two percent of countries classify it as such. Wildlife offenses are regarded as serious crimes by 12 out of 18 countries in Eastern Africa.

Africa and Asia have the highest average percentage of Member States with penalties that meet the serious crime definition, suggesting that while legislation may be robust, enforcement remains a challenge. Offenses against wildlife are most frequently covered by criminal legislation, with 164 Member States maintaining such provisions, often exceeding the requirements of CITES, the international convention regulating the transboundary trade in endangered species.

The report also highlights the disparities in how laws are applied to individuals versus enterprises. Often, businesses escape with fines while individuals face imprisonment. The report recommends improving legislation to allow for the confiscation of means used to commit environmental crimes or proceeds from these offenses, addressing a current gap that often leads to the prosecution of minor offenders rather than significant economic players.

UNODC experts suggest several areas for improvement, including increasing penalties, expanding international cooperation tools like extradition or mutual legal assistance, and enhancing data collection on environmental crimes. 

The report emphasizes the need for better enforcement of legislation and more research on the effectiveness of penalties, noting that such information is vital for understanding which extents of criminalization are most effective in preventing environmental crimes.

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