Organised crime and corruption threaten human security in the Western Balkans

Organised crime in the Western Balkans has stronger links to corruption than to terrorism, according to research conducted by the HUMSEC project. It suggests that these connections have a large impact on human security. In its continuing role in this field, the EU must look more to the causes of problems than the punishment, and encourage greater local involvement.

The three-year long HUMSEC project has brought together researchers from the EU and the West Balkans, co-ordinating a network of 16 institutions from 14 countries. It organised three annual conferences and produced a series of working papers that have been published in the HUMSEC journal, and a state-of-the-art book.

Developing a common methodology for the different areas within the Western Balkans in a period of conflict, when some state forms were dismantled and others emerged, proved to be difficult due to a variation in approaches and definitions. It was agreed to work from the concept of human security, which goes beyond the state to the individual and allows for a deeper, more holistic analysis of the root causes of terrorism and organised crime.

The connections between transnational terrorism and organised crime, and the influence on state and society

There has been a significant decline in ordinary crime in the Western Balkans but organised crime and corruption is still present. Organised crime mainly takes the form of trafficking in drugs and human beings, but also money laundering. These activities are facilitated by poor law enforcement that is still weak from the conflict.

Evidence of a specific 'terror-crime' nexus, however, is inconclusive. This is partly due to difficulties in defining the concepts. But it is also due to the difficulties of identifying the motives of groups operating within a network. For example, at the end of the war, some links developed between some sectors of the emerging state of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Islamic groups, some of which had links to terrorist groups. As such, Bosnia has been used, albeit in very limited way, as a 'gateway' for militants moving between Europe and the Middle East. But the motivation behind these links was often based on a desire to promote (or spoil) a local peace process, not to export terrorism to third countries.

In general the project indicated that ‘transnational terrorism’ has failed to gain a foothold in the Balkans, mainly because local communities are more concerned with ethnic identification than with larger ideology or religious belief. The criminal involvement with politics is considered a much more significant and persistent problem. These links were created during the conflict and some have survived, albeit transformed, particularly in the security sector. So-called ‘conflict entrepreneurs’ are not interested in a complete failure of the political systems but in keeping the system weakened so they can continue to control it. With the help of the international community a re-centralisation is taking place to strengthen state functions, such as law enforcement which will increase human security.

However, ethnic interests still prevail over common interests and a developing centralised state can be threatened by unresolved issues with neighbouring countries, for example Croatia and Serbia providing passports etc. to ethnic groups within Bosnia-Herzegovina. Unresolved disputes in Kosovo and Macedonia are also limiting the functioning of centralised state institutions. Another phenomenon of concern is the nationalist violence of extreme right-wing youth groups, particularly in Serbia.

How to strengthen Human Security in the Western Balkans

The necessary measures to tackle organised crime are in place but they are not always implemented. This is due to the weakened state institutions, vested political and criminal interests and lack of human and financial resources. The role of society in the Western Balkans also needs to be strengthened by institutionalising its participation in public affairs.

The international community must address the socio-economic causes of crime, and concentrate less on sanctioning and punishment, which has been the focus of international strategy in the past, and more on 'incentives', e.g. concerning visas to EU countries. The implementation of reforms in the law enforcement sector remains crucial. Economic progress is key since a weak economy and high unemployment provide fertile ground for corruption and crime. There needs to be greater local ownership of NGO work and the EU should encourage regional cooperation. The international community should also live up to its own standards of accountability and ensure that those suspected of corruption are put on trial. It is suggested that the participation of victims in the criminal justice system would help strengthen the peace process. Lastly, throughout the report there is a call to establish systematic and reliable data collection and strengthen local research capabilities. This would lessen the use of estimates for political purposes in order to justify the priority of certain policies over others.

HUMSEC - Human Security in the Western Balkan region: the impact of transnational terrorist and criminal organisations on the peace-building process of the region (duration: 1/5/2006 – 30/4/2009) was a Coordination Action funded under the 6th Framework Programme for Research of the European Union, Thematic Priority 7 – Citizens and governance in a knowledge-based society.


Contact: Wolfgang Benedek,