A Treaty to Counter Global Crime ; A UN Conference That Began Yesterday in Sicily Will Help National Forces Target Increasingly International Criminals

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Elliott Ness is getting a makeover.

More than 150 governments gathered in this traditional stronghold of the Sicilian Mafia yesterday, to sign a treaty bringing international law enforcement into the high-tech, high speed, globalized new century.

The United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime - the first such international treaty - is a bid to help national police forces work as smoothly and efficiently together as do their targets. It will bolster existing international crime busters - like Interpol and the FBI - by enacting laws that support their efforts. Outlawing bank secrecy, keeping prosecutors worldwide in e-mail contact, and setting up international witness protection programs are among the treaty's goals.

Harmonizing laws and ways of implementing them, the convention "means we will go from the speed of an automobile to the speed of an aircraft" in mob-busting operations, says Pino Arlacchi, head of the UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention. "This is a state-of-the-art instrument in the fight against organized crime."

Open borders and modern communications technologies have done more than ease legal travel and trade. They have also enabled criminals to set up networks that span the globe.

Where once mobsters moved bootleg liquor from Canada into the United States, today Chinese "snakehead" gangs can smuggle illegal immigrants from Shanghai to Western Europe and America, and Colombian cocaine producers are hooked into planetwide distribution networks.

The new convention makes law enforcement equally global. For the first time, boasts Professor Arlacchi, "We have a universal standard to fight the Mafia."

Organized criminal gangs "have wasted no time" in adapting new technologies to their ends, said UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who opened the four-day conference. "But our efforts to combat them have remained until now very fragmented and our weapons almost obsolete." The convention, he added, would encourage people to recognize that mafias "are not invincible" - a lesson that Palermo has taught in a fierce and unexpectedly successful battle against the "Cosa Nostra" in recent years.

The treaty sets out an agreed definition of just what serious organized crime is. In the past, lack of such a definition has proved an often insuperable obstacle to investigators from different countries trying to help each other. When national parliaments have amended their laws to match the treaty, cooperation will be easier and quicker, UN officials say.

Prosecutors are often stymied as they follow international trails of suspects, when they find that what is a crime in their country is not illegal where their quarry is living. Italian police, for example, know that hundreds of Italian mafiosi are living peacefully in Caribbean islands where membership in a criminal organization is not illegal. …