9 June 2021 –
Ahead of the first-ever UN General Assembly Special Session against Corruption (UNGASS), the UNCAC Coalition brought together nine civil society experts to discuss a wide array of anti-corruption topics and to what extend the priorities and demands of civil society were reflected in the UNGASS Political Declaration.
The Political Declaration will serve as a key reference document for global anti-corruption efforts for the coming years, building on and complementing the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC).
Numerous civil society groups, including the UNCAC Coalition, made detailed contributions and proposals to the UNGASS preparation process. But now that civil society has taken a closer look at the text of the Political Declaration, what commitments have been made, what is missing and what further action is needed to make meaningful progress in the fight against corruption?
Helen Darbishire, Executive Director of Access Info Europe and Chair of the UNCAC Coalition, on Access to Information:
The Political Declaration has made progress insofar as mentions of access to information and transparency are more numerous than in the UNCAC. However, the language used in the Declaration is “weak and confusing.” The declaration speaks about “access to information in accordance with the domestic laws of States” (operative paragraph 22), yet access to information fails to be recognized as a fundamental human right despite ongoing advocacy efforts for such a specific reference in the declaration. Moreover, commitments relating to the delegation of efforts to other bodies lack clear reference as to how this will be carried out in practice, for instance, suggestions for stronger oversight mechanisms like information commissioners.
The Declaration highlights new areas in which transparency should feature: the private sector, beneficial ownership, judicial processes and the SDGs. While such references tend to be general and vague, they signal beginnings of progress.
Civil society has an important role in demanding that Member States translate the Declaration’s language into concrete commitments and integrate concepts into action plans. The Political Declaration is one more piece of evidence in holding States Parties to account, and pushing for more action in both national and international fora.
Kristen Robinson, Head of Advocacy at Open Contracting Partnership, on Public Procurement Transparency
In essence, procurement is about money and not just contracts, bureaucracy and red tape. Procurement can act as a powerful social contract with the ability to make measurable impacts, such as increasing the number of patients receiving critical medical treatment or improving the effectiveness of infrastructure against natural disasters, in line with the SDGs.
The Political Declaration delivers in the areas of committing to strengthening data collection systems and embracing modern digital tools to fight corruption. However, it falls short of acknowledging the need for multistakeholder consultation on procurement decisions and mentioning the industry and market as critical players in the procurement cycle.
Moving forward, Member States need to be encouraged to commit to civil society, industry and media engagement for the implementation and monitoring of public procurement.
- For more, see OCP’s blog post: UNGASS2021: Why procurement matters and what should be done about it
Thom Townsend, Executive Director of Open Ownership, on Beneficial Ownership Transparency
Beneficial ownership transparency (BOT) has made great strides over a short period of time, with over 100 countries currently committed to some form of BOT.
While the Political Declaration is an upgrade of the UNCAC in terms of agreed language on this topic, one critical element which is missing is the word “used,” because information that is available and accessible but unused is a burden without value. The UNCAC itself also requires updated language – it risks being left behind and feeling outdated on beneficial ownership. The UN system has a vital role to play in representing the views and needs of countries outside the small club of countries setting rules via bodies like FATF (OECD countries).
A next step for BOT is the establishment of strong language on central, verified and shared data on all entity ownership as the new global minimum, with commitments and initiatives that are put to use by both governments and law enforcement agencies.
David Banisar, Head of Transparency at ARTICLE 19, on Civic Space & the Protection of Journalists/Activists
With 66 journalists killed in 2020 alone, often linked to corruption-related reporting, journalists, activists and human rights defenders are undeniably at the forefront of the fight against corruption, yet are also frequently victims of life-threatening attacks. While the issue has been recognized by UN bodies such as the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, the UNGASS’ Political Declaration has also made a statement with direct reference to the condemnation of “threats and acts of violence…committed against [journalists]” (operative paragraph 31).
States must be held accountable to this commitment, and potential further action could involve the inclusion of data on NGOs and journalists in civic space as part of the second review cycle of the UNCAC.
Samantha Feinstein, Deputy Director at the Government Accountability Project, on Whistleblowing
Covid-19 has exposed the dangers of whistleblowing and reporting on corruption to the world. To date, national legislation in many countries does not provide adequate protection for whistleblowers and reporting persons. The Political Declaration does indicate its intentions to “provide a safe and enabling environment to those who expose, report and fight corruption…” (OP 30) with the provision of protected reporting systems and programs for them.
Nevertheless, the Declaration lacks specificity in its definitions of terms, which need to be refined and consistent with international law. Its commitments should also incorporate fewer vague qualifiers: exceptions must be carefully defined in order to avoid conflict with their intended objectives. In sum, implementation action is needed, especially in terms of settlement agreements which should be made public.
Gladwell Otieno, Executive Director of the Africa Centre for Open Governance, on Tackling Impunity
The 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) published by Transparency International revealed that few countries have made significant progress in tackling corruption over the past 10 years, with over two-thirds of ranked countries with a score under 50, among them even those considered ‘advanced’ democracies. The Political Declaration unfortunately fails to communicate a sense of urgency over matters of grand corruption and tackling impunity.
State capture has resulted in the implanting of impunity in the DNA of a state’s operation, and the reproduction of corrupt behaviors which are resilient in the face of reform and incentives to stem corruption. The Declaration falls short of making bold commitments and highlighting a powerful vision for the future of anti-corruption, yet not for a lack of good examples to follow, as seen in the recommendations contained in the Lima Statement (December 2018) and the Oslo Statement (June 2019). Moreover, the Declaration’s more significant omissions include the lack of mentions of hidden debts and the use of technology to nefarious ends, as a means to repress civil society voices.
Cynthia Gabriel, Founding Director of the Centre to Combat Corruption and Cronyism, on Grand Corruption
Grand corruption does not only happen on grand scales – small jurisdictions can also play a part in large corruption scandals, alongside other actors like lawyers, accountants and financial actors who are complicit to the crimes, beyond States and their leaders which are often the main focus. The fairly small Malaysian economy contributed to one of the largest financial scandals in the world in recent history, the 1MDB case, due to the failure of domestic financial institutions that allowed corruption to take place. Individuals who came forward to question Parliament in Malaysia were shut down and blocked from voicing their concerns. While the case started to garner international attention, local efforts to expose the scandal were stifled and individuals completely oppressed.
The Political Declaration alludes to grand corruption without directly pinpointing what kind of action States should take to counter it, which “comes as no surprise considering that governments themselves require power and space, as well as a high level of impunity to play with money – the less scrutiny we have, the better it is for them” to ensure that their financial schemes succeed. Rethinking a new strategy to tackle grand corruption is key: governments cannot be fully relied upon in the fight against corruption and civil society needs to use its voice to ensure that active commitments are made.
Juanita Olaya, Chair of the UNCAC Coalition Working Group on Victims of Corruption
Focusing on the root causes, actors and processes behind corruption have eclipsed a central feature: citizens, the consequences they face as victims of corrupt acts and the compensation they should receive in return. If justice is not being served, why should we fight for more enforcement? The Political Declaration falls short of making a revolutionary statement about citizens at the core of corruption cases, recognizing their right to stand before tribunals and demand compensation for the harms caused to them and their livelihoods. While some States have begun to include considerations for repatriation when dealing with corruption cases, and others, such as France, are working on implementing landmark legislation regarding the return of “ill-gotten gains” the Declaration does not commit to any sort of remedy for victims. Future enforcement measures must bring justice and citizens to the forefront of discussions, rather than casting them on the sidelines of political agreements.
Gillian Dell, Head of the Conventions Unit at Transparency International, on Asset Recovery
The inherent difficulty with Asset Recovery is that the states responsible for failures in this area are the same states sitting at the negotiating table. The Political Declaration covers the detection, confiscation and return of stolen assets, yet not in measurable terms, signaling only minor progress. Links between the issue of stolen assets and transnational organized crime were not specifically made in the Declaration. More general commitments on information sharing and strengthening capacities for the recovery of assets are positive ideas in principle, but difficult to monitor, given restrictions in accessing data related to asset recovery in most States.
The Declaration is missing an emphasis on what next steps will be taken to operationalize and monitor the commitments made, such as through the establishment of an Intergovernmental Expert Working Group addressing gaps, specifically in the field of asset recovery and transnational organized corruption. Transparency International and the UNCAC Coalition issued a joint proposal for a multilateral agreement on asset recovery, outlining how international consensus will help with the return of confiscated funds back to affected populations. The momentum generated by the UNGASS on this issue cannot end after the Special Session itself – civil society must keep the conversation going.
To summarize, it is clear that the Political Declaration largely reiterates existing UNCAC commitments and does not go much further, signaling very little progress with regards to the discussed topics. This should not be considered a surprise, as the prevailing position shared by many Member states, shaped the latest consensus – ‘no’ to new normative frameworks and commitments, ‘yes’ to stronger UNCAC implementation.
The next step in operationalising some of the UNGASS commitments will be the UNCAC Conference of States Parties in December 2021, where States will negotiate and adopt resolutions specific topics that to advance the implementation of anti-corruption commitments.