LONDON— A two-day Special Session of the General Assembly opens this Monday at the United Nations in New York, intended as a major assault on the global drug problem. By the time dessert and coffee are served Tuesday night, everything will return to business as usual, including the inability of the United Nations to have any effect on the global drug problem.

They have gone this route before. In 1988 the General Assembly adopted the Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. Ten years later, a quarter of the member states had still not signed on, and among the rest fewer than 30 bothered passing legislation that even came close to resembling the model in the convention.

The United Nations’ impotence stems directly from individual members’ interests. Too many countries flourish in the narco-economy.

Worldwide, more money is spent on illicit drugs than on food, making illicit drugs the planet’s largest and most lucrative cash crop.

The devastation wreaked by drugs on everything from families to democracies is too often shrouded by glass skyscrapers — witness Miami, now the economic capital of South America. Or by the dividends of international banking groups — bad loans to Latin America in the 1970s were repaid thanks to drug money. Or by the huge invisible earnings of global financial centers — witness Britain selling its sovereignty in the murky world of offshore banking.

Ultimately, rhetoric is easier than turning the war on drugs into a war on the business of drugs.

As in any multinational industry, drug trafficking thrives on cash flow and reinvestment. Cash from the streets gets put into the world’s banking system, moved in and out of shell companies and through secret banking jurisdictions, then repatriated, disguised as legitimate profit.

The United Nations has conceded that as much as $300 billion worth of drug money is currently immersed in this money laundering cycle. Yet more than 50 UN member states openly sell phony shell companies.

It is not just the Caribbean — the Cayman Islands, for example, with one bank for every 57 citizens. It is also Western Europe (Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, the Channel Islands), the Middle East, Latin America, Eastern Europe, Africa (Nigeria in particular) and the Pacific.

Two months ago, preparing a French television film based on my book “The Laundrymen,” I phoned a company-formation agent in London to wonder, blatantly, where I could hide money. The person suggested Niue. Where is that? The person didn’t know.

It turns out to be a British Commonwealth sandbar in the middle of the Pacific, population 2,321. It has been put on the map by Panamanian lawyers acting for Colombian drug barons.

For $135, white-collar professionals operating legally in UN member states will hook anyone into the network of countries, companies and banks used for hiding dirty money.

Company-formation agents are backseat passengers on this bandwagon. Sitting up front are otherwise legitimate bankers, lawyers and accountants who have mined colossal fortunes out of brokering dirty money.

The United States has the world’s strictest regulations against money laundering — perhaps not surprisingly, as it is the largest consumer of illicit drugs. Yet there are no laws in the United States or in any other member state which hold white-collar professionals criminally responsible for not knowing that way down the line the ultimate beneficial owner of the money turns out to be a drug baron.

Relying on “plausible deniability,” these professionals need only look to their immediate client to claim: “I’m not dealing with a trafficker, I’m doing business with a lawyer.”

Requiring them to identify everyone involved at every level back to the ultimate beneficial owner of the money would effectively thwart the traffickers’ ability to launder his profits.

And the community of nations should ruthlessly ostracize governments which countenance trafficking and money laundering. Shutting down businesses in member states, that rely on secret banking and phony shell companies in rogue states would send the correct zero-tolerance message. You beat the traffickers by bankrupting them.

But that means taking on globally influential bankers, lawyers and accountants, and at least a quarter of the member states. Where are the politicians with the stomach for this fight?


The writer’s books include an updated edition of “The Laundrymen,” a survey of the world of money laundering. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.