Consistent commitments: Civil society calls on OGP governments to pledge transparency in the second review cycle of the UNCAC

6 December 2016, by Christine Clough, Global Financial Integrity, and Peter Tausz, UNCAC Coalition.

This year the Open Government Partnership (OGP) is celebrating its five-year anniversary, having grown from eight participating countries to 70 by 2016. At the same time the 180 signatories to the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) have launched the second review cycle of their commitments under the Convention on prevention (chapter II) and asset recovery (chapter V).

The OGP – an international platform for domestic reformers committed to making their governments more open, accountable, and responsive to citizens – has consistently offered something all too rare in international forums: it has promoted genuine equal partnership and co-ownership between governments and civil society.

By contrast, the UNCAC review mechanism has not always embraced civil society participation or transparency in the same way. In particular, it has barred civil society observers from attending the regular proceedings of the Implementation Review Group and from Working Group meetings. Civil society organisations have also found that, although around 80 per cent of the country reviews included some civil society input in country visits, governments did not fully engage with them during the first review cycle and transparency remained a challenge.

It is a major problem with the UNCAC review mechanism that transparency and participation remain optional features of the second review cycle, which started in June 2016 and will run for five years. The starting point for assessing whether the UNCAC is working in terms of transparency and participation is the UNCAC review mechanism itself.

Transparency and participation for accountable governance

In the second review cycle governments will be assessed, inter alia, on transparency and the participation of civil society (UNCAC Article 13), providing a great opportunity to promote these essential preventive measures within the mechanism. This is especially significant because civil society organisations around the world have been reporting shrinking space to operate and aggressive even violent treatment by governments. Russia, China, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Kenya, Uganda, Israel, Ethiopia, Angola, Honduras, Venezuela and Egypt are among the 60 or more countries that have taken steps to limit the ability of civil society groups to receive or use money from foreign sources, so called “foreign agents.” Some governments are also physically closing offices of international NGOs, relenting only under sufficient international pressure. In 2014 and again in 2016, Hungarian authorities have raided the offices of NGOs for alleged budgetary fraud for money supposedly used to subvert the government.

The meaningful inclusion of strong civil society representatives is a necessary component of successful UNCAC implementation and review, because it is a direct manifestation of government accountability. OGP member governments, and other upstanding governments should engage the transparency provisions of the second review cycle process to set a positive example for including rather than excluding civil society in fighting corruption.

UNCAC commitments are only as good as their follow-through; governments and civil society need to fully engage with each other to achieve meaningful and mutually beneficial transparency and accountability in governance. This cannot exist without civil society; and countries will not achieve the necessary behavioural changes on corruption without establishing and solidifying both of these within governance structures and society more broadly.

Working together for progress

The UNCAC Coalition and the OGP Secretariat have been working together to promote their shared agendas on these key issues, especially with regard to the role of civil society. The OGP has declared that its priorities for the next five years will focus on deepening engagement with in-country civil society organisations and on how countries are succeeding – or not – in following through on their respective National Action Plans. Where OGP and UNCAC commitments overlap, there is great opportunity for member countries to pursue and civil society to push for policy coherence during the UNCAC second review cycle.

The UNCAC Coalition has prepared an UNCAC Review Transparency Pledge for states parties to voluntarily and publicly commit to being open and inclusive in the second cycle of reviews. Governments that are members of the OGP and also signatories to the UNCAC have a unique opportunity and imperative to pledge to be fully transparent and accountable during the upcoming reviews of their laws and practices. As of December there are 17 countries signed up to the Transparency Pledge, 11 of which are also OGP members. The UNCAC Coalition calls on all states parties that are OGP members to join in signing the Pledge.

The UNCAC Coalition is joining forces with the OGP on this issue of mutual interest, because we are more effective together than we are alone, and the world needs more power behind the push for transparency and accountability.

About the authors

Christine Clough is Program Manager at Global Financial Integrity and member of the UNCAC Coalition Coordination Committee. Peter Tausz is UNCAC Coalition Advocacy Adviser.