Civil society participation: An essential element in anti-corruption efforts

21 October 2015, by Vanja Škorić.

The fight against corruption is a long-term process, requiring deep structural changes to a country’s institutions, its legal framework and its culture. Therefore, actors outside government – especially in civil society – are an essential component to anti-corruption success.

Civil society organisations’ (CSOs) contributions range from awareness-raising and prevention campaigns to participation in policy formation and monitoring of the implementation of anti-corruption strategies and legislation. CSOs are especially engaged in empowering citizens and exerting pressure on governments to address their international commitments. All these activities are crucial for building national anti-corruption capacity and supporting institutional reform.

While there are encouraging examples of governments proactively embracing civil society in anti-corruption work, in an increasing number of countries CSOs have been undermined and targeted by governments; sometimes precisely because of their anti-corruption engagement.

CSOs cannot perform their vital role where they are subject to constraints that negate their rights to participate, associate, assemble and express freely. In response to restrictions on civic space in recent years, there have been calls for strengthening the framework for participation.

In 2014, the Human Rights Council adopted Resolution 27/24 addressing this issue,[1] and tasked the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to develop a study to highlight best practice and recommendations for further action. The study (A/HRC/30/26) states that public participation includes the right to be consulted at each phase of legislative drafting and policy-making; to voice opinions and criticism; and to submit proposals aimed at improving the functioning and inclusivity of all state bodies.

This right to civil society participation in policy-making processes is recognised internationally, although commitments are not always specific enough to ensure implementation. For example, participation in public affairs is integrated into Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,[2] but the specific right to participate in policy- and law-making needs to be further elaborated. It should be a concrete right that countries must respect and that can be monitored through treaty bodies, resolutions and reports. The implementation guidance for countries, issued by the OHCHR, would be helpful to bridge this gap.

At a regional level, the Council of Europe’s 2009 Code of Good Practice for Civil Participation in the Decision-making Process defines general principles, guidelines, tools and mechanisms for the active participation of CSOs, but again it is non-binding and not monitored. However, the Code has proven helpful for supporting the development of participatory decision-making at the national level.

Finally, the new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development also recognises that progress in promoting sustainable development requires strong partnerships across society. It is no coincidence that the reduction of corruption and bribery (Goal 16.5) and the development of effective, accountable and transparent institutions (Goal 16.6) have been bundled with ensuring responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making (Goal 16.7) – anti-corruption efforts cannot be successful without meaningful participation.

But of course, this all supports what we know already. The UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) has long recognised the role of civil society in combating corruption by calling on governments to increase transparency, improve public access to information, and promote public contributions to government decision-making processes. In the words of Peter Eigen, co-founder of Transparency International:

… only an effective coalition of state, business and civil society can bring transparency and accountability to governance – not only to fight corruption, but other ills of globalization too, including injustice and inequity, poverty, violence, conflict, environmental destruction and climate change.

At a time when trust in governments’ commitments to fight corruption is declining, it is imperative to encourage and enable civil society to participate. CSOs will work to encourage participation at the upcoming Conference of States Parties to the UNCAC. The mechanisms for the full participation of CSOs in the UNCAC’s implementation will be discussed for the first time at plenary session, and there will also be a side event on civil society participation in anti-corruption efforts.

We have the evidence to support meaningful civil society participation for good governance and anti-corruption success. What we need now is the full commitment of governments to enable participation and to pledge to consult civil society across all areas of corruption policy development, implementation and monitoring.

About Vanja Škorić

Vanja Škorić is Senior Legal Advisor, European Center for Not-for-Profit Law.

  1. Resolution: “Reaffirms the obligation of States to take all appropriate measures to ensure that every citizen has an effective right and opportunity to equal participation in public affairs”. It also requested the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to prepare a study on best practices, experiences and challenges and ways to overcome them with regard to the promotion, protection and implementation of the right to participate in public affairs in the context of the existing human rights law, with a view to identifying possible elements of principles guiding the implementation of that right. A/HRC/27/24.
  2. Article 25 includes the right to take part in the conduct of public affairs, which is the basis for public participation in policy and decision-making.