On Human Rights Day: How the War on Organised Crime Is Destroying Our Societies

by Reidar Visser

It is common knowledge that since 2001, government operations lumped together as “the war on terror” have become an increasing threat to civil liberties in liberal democracies. Key judicial notions like the presumption of innocence and due process are increasingly given short shrift whenever government actions can be justified with reference to the fight against real and imagined “terrorists”. In recent years, extrajudicial death sentences in the shape of drone warfare have come to epitomise some of the bluntest setbacks in modern times for hard-fought rule of law principles that were spearheaded by Enlightenment thinkers in the eighteenth century.

There is a second, problematic government “war” going on these days that is getting far less attention than the “war on terror”. It is a war where the definition of the target is equally arbitrary, the transgression of civil liberties equally extreme, and the threat to the survival of western liberal democracy equally acute. It consists of a large number of shadowy police operations  carried  out nationally and internationally with reference to an assumed war on “organised crime”.

Today, “organised crime units” or “gang units” can be found in most Western democracies. Exactly like in the case of the war on terror, their “war” involves carpet bombing vaguely defined targets in lieu of a normal judicial process. Since prosecution is no longer the main aim, a domestic equivalent of drone warfare called disruption dominates instead. Police disruption methods range from rather innocuous elements like enhanced supervision and expedited trials, via illegal methods like police stalking and harassment, to serious torture crimes involving unconventional directed energy weapons.

The problem with organised crime operations is that the police tries to seduce the general public with fancy terminology in order to circumvent normal judicial procedure. Of course, the most obvious reason they are doing this is that they are unwilling or unable to bring forward a normal prosecution. The laws or the judges are “wrong” in the eyes of the police, or the suspected criminals aren’t quite as criminal as the police thinks after all. But instead of making this police-state admission publicly, the police concocts a whole new vocabulary intended to divert attention from their own basic human rights violations. Exactly as in the case of war on terror, “organised crime” is construed so monstrously that the public is supposed to forget about human rights altogether. Suddenly every sex-work related phenomenon is seen as an expression of horrible “trafficking”. Dissidents of whatever political or cultural colour are labelled  “gangs”,  “hooligans”, “hackers”, or “bikers”. For undesirables that fit none of these categories, accusations of sexual “perversion” can always come in handy. In short, with the spread of disruption as a police method, due process and the presumption of innocence are increasingly privileges given mostly to red-handed murderers where the question of guilt is so obvious that the prosecution can afford to show a little magnanimity. For everyone else disliked by the police, there are disruption methods – punishment that is meted out with police officers as jury, judge and executioner.

This of course is not to deny the existence of organised crime as a serious threat. Organised crime is real, exactly in the same way that terror is also real. But the definition of these problems is often so sloppy that the net effect of the government’s “warfare” may well be to undermine the concept of rule of law rather than to promote it. This is even more pronounced in the case of the war on the organised crime since few suitable monitoring institutions exist. The spy services who do much of the war on terror are at least recognised as a threat to democracy and therefore have their own specialised oversight mechanisms. But the police departments that prosecute the “war on organised crime” are often subject only to ordinary independent police commissions. Such independent commissions are rarely equipped to deal with things that are more complex than police shootings and deaths in custody. As a consequence, even though organised crime units often possess exactly the same armoury of unconventional weapons that are being used in the war on terror, they are subject to far less institutionalised oversight and checks and balances than anti-terror squads. Ironically, some of the worst organised crime units thrive in countries like Norway and the Netherlands where politicians like to see themselves as particularly virtuous democracies and typically roll their eyes over conditions at Guantanamo. At the same time, these politicians are blind to the transgressions carried out by their own semi-secret “organised crime” police.

With respect to the war on terror, at least some civil liberties groups have  been able to put  systematic human rights violations on the agenda. By way of contrast, with respect to the equally grave human rights violations perpetrated by the police in their war on organised crime, the response from civil liberty groups is so far much more fragmented. Why is this so? One possible explanation is that many liberals may find it so much easier to defend people who live far away – say, drone victims in Yemen and Afghanistan – than engaging for the sake of dissidents closer to home. After all, defending the victims of the war on organised crime would often imply solidarity with sex workers, bikers, sexual minorities or football hooligans living in their own urban communities. Pseudo-liberals may find this to be outside their comfort zone .

In some countries, the development of organised crime units has gone so far that they represent perhaps the greatest threat against democracy since the Second World War and the police forces of the Nazis. A case in point in Norway, where the lawless but powerful organised crime department of the Oslo police is effectively controlled by state-sponsored street thugs with zero judicial expertise. The dominance of this unit is aggravated by several structural weaknesses of Norway as a rule of law country, including a culture of collusion between some politicians and human rights criminals in the police, a prosecution dominated by the police to an extent that is unparalleled elsewhere in Europe, as well as the absence of legal and constitutional protection for weak groups including many sexual minorities. Additionally, Norway exhibits an ironic weakness when it comes to secret policing. On the one hand, there is the police secret service (PST), which following a series of scandals during the Cold War era is now monitored and hamstrung to the point where even civil liberty groups sometimes pity them for their toothlessness and almost academic appearance. Large numbers of well-known Al-Qaeda sympathisers are benefiting from the reluctance of the PST to even monitor their activities in Norway.  On the other hand, the organised crime department of the Oslo police – which includes some of the worst state-sponsored human rights criminals in the whole of Northern Europe – is exempt from real control altogether. The lack of oversight is highlighted by the fact that the organised crime department’s indirect complicity in the 22 July 2011 terror attack is not even discussed in the independent commission report that was published after the attacks. During spring 2011, the people at the “organised crime unit” of the Oslo police who should have watched the rightwing extremist Anders Behring Breivik spent enormous resources on trailing me on three continents as extra-judicial punishment, justified with reference to (perfectly legal) street photography. The example shows how the elasticity of definition of organised crime – in this case singling out legal street photography as a “serious crime” worthy of “organised crime unit” attention – creates embarrassing and tragic failures on the part of the police with respect to their task of combating real crime, including crimes of terrorism.

Can these attacks on our democracies be dealt with effectively? Perhaps.  Firstly, civil right groups must attack the Achilles heel of the police, which is their attempts to describe to the general public in the most innocuous language possible their own illegal activities. Even if they rarely describe their dirtiest tricks, some of what these police officers say publicly is nonetheless often so extreme that it suffices as admissions of torture, harassment and unusual punishment. Again, Norway can provide relevant empirical information. For example, the anti-prostitution Stop project of the Oslo police has openly bragged about how it outsourced threats against prostitutes to landlords, intimidated people into accepting giant fines by alluding to the inconvenience of a public trial, and discriminated against transvestites by systematically revealing to customers their biological gender. Some of this constitutes prosecutable acts of psychological torture under article 117 of the Norwegian penal code, which includes threats made by public officials. To make matters worse, the leading Norwegian daily VG recently  revealed that prostitution in Oslo has increased again despite the massive “police offensive”, meaning the only results of the “war on organised crime” in this case was a more insecure environment for legal sex workers, many of whom where thrown on the street because of the police’s threats. (Please don’t be surprised about their methods: The same Oslo police also systematically sends sniffer dogs on school classes without any specific suspicion, belittles Muslims and African sex workers via its Twitter account, and harasses its own gay officers to the point where they reportedly have their Christmas parties in secret locations.)

Second, it is necessary to enhance public awareness regarding the fact that many police disruption methods are judicially speaking the equivalent of torture and other unusual punishment. A law enforcement officer who tries to enforce something which is not the law is not only a criminal. Such officers are worse than ordinary criminals since their crimes involve state abuse of power, one of the greatest sins in a modern democracy. It is precisely for these reasons that a police officer guilty of extra-judicial or unusual punishment in many jurisdictions is liable to prison terms comparable to those for worst degree murders.

Thirdly, civil rights groups need to destroy the artificial schism whereby activists fight hard for civil rights in exotic countries but don’t dare support the victims of government abuse at home, such as sex workers or bikers. I remember myself having read about threats against prostitutes by Oslo police but didn’t reflect on it until the same animals from the organised crime department of the Oslo police that had previously harassed prostitutes beleaguered my apartment in Oslo for a full month in winter 2011. Only when the gap between different victims of a misconceived war on organised crime unite will a truly civic liberal culture and the rule of law prevail in our fragile democracies.