LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - More than a dozen countries have agreed to enforce laws to fight trafficking in human organs, a business that exploits the world's poorest people and earns criminals up to $1.2 billion (0.80 billion pounds) in illegal profits every year.
Albania, Austria, Belgium and Britain were among 14 nations to sign the first ever international treaty to combat the trade, Europe's leading human rights body said on Thursday.
With an estimated 10,000 black market transplants carried out each year, the Council of Europe Convention against Trafficking in Human Organs would make it a crime to extract organs from people without their "free, informed and specific consent".
It would also make it illegal for the donor or a third party to make money from organ transplants and gives victims the right to compensation.
"Most of the trafficking of kidneys and other organs in the world flows from poor to rich countries, and within poor countries, from poor to rich people," said Ivan Koedjikov, head of Action against Crime at the Council of Europe.
"In most cases it's the most vulnerable who give," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone.
The typical recipient of a donated organ is male, 48 and earns an annual income of $53,000 while the typical organ donor is male, 29, and earns less than $500 annually, according to Organs Watch, a human rights group that documents the global trade in organs.
Citing figures from the Global Financial Integrity watchdog, the Council of Europe says the illicit trade in human organs is worth between $600 million and $1.2 billion every year.
In Europe alone, there were more than 68,000 people on the waiting list for a kidney transplant in 2012.
Recipients can pay anywhere between $50,000 and $100,000 for a kidney, liver, heart or other organ, Koedjikov said.
"Of course it cannot happen without some sort of aiding and abetting or involvement of medical doctors, of the establishment," he added.
"So the Convention also establishes corporate liability for this. If the criminal acts have been done by somebody in a position of responsibility, there could be corporate or hospital liability."
Five countries have to ratify the treaty, which is open to all countries, before it comes into force. So far, the other signatories are the Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Moldova, Poland, Portugal, Spain and Turkey.
Trafficking in organs occurs when traffickers force or deceive the victims into giving up an organ, or when victims agree to sell an organ but are not paid in full or at all.
In other cases, organs are removed without the victim's knowledge during medical treatment.
(Editing by Tim Pearce)