Corruption, the thief in the night
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
(29 January 2024) — Governments and private enterprises that engage in corrupt practices reduce resources available for the public good. That is why everyone should be concerned.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) describes corruption as “a complex social, political and economic phenomenon that affects all countries. Corruption undermines democratic institutions, slows economic development and contributes to government instability.” Furthermore, according to the UNODC, “Corruption attacks the foundation of democratic institutions by distorting electoral processes, perverting the rule of law and creating bureaucratic quagmires whose only reason for existing is the soliciting of bribes.”
You may not recognize all the effects of corruption depending on how and where you live. But you will have experienced, directly or indirectly, some if not all the negative effects of corruption.
International mandates and effects
The United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), 2003, sets universal standards and establishes pathways for all countries to prevent, prosecute, and end corruption at the national and international levels. Jamaica and all CARCOM members, except St. Kitts & Nevis (SKN) and St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG), are parties to the UNCAC. The UNCAC is the only legally binding universal anti-corruption instrument. The levels of implementation of UNCAC’s provisions vary as do the levels of corruption across the Caribbean. But any level of corruption in any country is too much. Then why not SKN and SVG?
What are the mandates of UNCAC? While corruption is found in all forms of political systems and every country, corruption thrives more rapidly in non-democratic systems thus eroding basic freedoms. While corrupt leaders will do whatever is necessary in a democracy to avoid accountability, lack of accountability is the norm in autocratic societies. Thus it is important in the anti-corruption struggle to have a clear understanding of corruption’s known effects on the countries and people.
The foreword to the UNCAC, written by then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, begins with these words:
“Corruption is an insidious plague that has a wide range of corrosive effects on societies. It undermines democracy and the rule of law, leads to violations of human rights, distorts markets, erodes the quality of life and allows organized crime, terrorism and other threats to human security to flourish.”
Moreover, among the effects, Annan said,
“Corruption hurts the poor disproportionately by diverting funds intended for development, undermining a government’s ability to provide basic services, feeding inequality and injustice and discouraging foreign aid and development. Corruption is a major obstacle to … poverty alleviation.”
The UNCAC provides for all states parties to adopt a comprehensive set of standards and measures, including the criminalization of the most prevalent forms of corruption in both the public and private sectors. Laws must be enacted to ensure individuals are held accountable for their corrupt practices.
Given the problems caused and the threats posed by corruption to the stability and security of societies, the undermining of the institutions and values of democracy, the erosion of ethical values and justice, and jeopardizing sustainable development and the rule of law, are reasons why the citizenry of every democratic society should be concerned about the societal effects of corruption. The public must be actively engaged in an unrelenting effort to end to this scourge.
Corruption’s transnational nexus
There are important links between corruption and other insidious crimes, such as transnational organized crimes, and money laundering. The illicit acquisition of personal wealth, including unjust enrichment from the public treasury, can be particularly damaging to democratic institutions, national economies, and the rule of law. Corruption often takes on a transnational character in the laundering of illicit financial gains. Foreign financial institutions are the preferred depositories for illicit financial gains by corrupt officials. Corruption is often also linked to foreign interlocutors or to foreign transactions in which foreign individuals and entities seek special favors by bribing local officials.
It is imperative therefore that anti-corruption laws allow for cooperation with other countries to prevent international transfer and concealment of illicitly acquired assets. This requires cooperation in investigation and prosecution of corruption – mutual legal assistance – and return of assets to countries plundered by corrupt individuals.
It is also important for foreign governments to enforce their anti-corruption laws against foreign corrupt officials, without favor or exception. The U.S. government (USG) which promotes anti-corruption in its foreign assistance programs and country-to-country engagements are often criticized for inconsistencies in enforcement of its anti-corruption policy, including the application of the USG’s most effective anti-corruption law – the Magnitsky Act. The USG frequently imposes targeted sanctions against some foreign corrupt officials while sparing officials in some friendly countries, including countries in the Caribbean.
The anti-corruption fight is not limited to governments’ actions against corruption. Civil society, non-governmental organizations, community-based groups, and individuals must join with and advocate for governments to combat corruption in their countries. Public advocacy can effectively drive improvement in anti-corruption standards and principles of good governance; promote honest and proper management of public funds and property; ensure fairness, responsibility, and accountability, and equality before the law; to safeguard integrity, and develop cultural practices and norms rejecting corruption.
Consistent, robust anti-corruption advocacy is imperative in preventing corruption from robbing the citizenry of democracy and the rule of law, and for preserving basic rights and freedoms from risk of erosion and elimination. Ending corruption and ensuring accountability of public officials who, left unchecked, rob from the people is the duty of every responsible, informed citizen. For the people to be aroused, they must first understand what is at stake. The people must be aware that the foundational basic responsibility of a functional democratic society is the protection of citizens’ rights. Corruption is the thief in the night. It robs you – the people – of what is rightfully yours. Among other things, it robs you of equal justice, basic human rights, and human security. It robs you of your dignity and opportunity for individual social and economic advancement. Corruption robs you of your humanity. #2024AntiCorruptionYear
© Curtis A. Ward
This article was also published in the Jamaica Gleaner, 28 January 2024.