Last Preparatory UNGASS 2021 Meeting Discusses the Way Forward

5 March 2021-

The third UNCAC CoSP intersessional meeting in preparation for the UNGASS against Corruption took place in a hybrid format (virtual and in-person participation at the UNODC headquarters in Vienna) between 22-23 February 2021, and as in former meetings, was comprised of issue-focused panel discussions. The opening panel discussion focused on the question: what are the political commitments Member States should agree on in the UNGASS’s high-level Political Declaration and how should the way forward look?

Developing New Frameworks vs. Strengthening Existing Commitments

Following Colombia’s initiative to nominate a representative from civil society for the first panel discussion, Gillian Dell, Head of Conventions Unit at Transparency International (TI) and Board Member of the UNCAC Coalition was chosen for the task, alongside representatives from Nigeria, the US, China, and INTERPOL. In her presentation, Dell stressed that the UNGASS must do more than celebrate the UNCAC and its efforts and that conditions allowing for grand corruption cases show that current anti-corruption arrangements are failing. She drew attention to TI’s petition bringing together 700 signatories from over 100 countries, urging Member States to commit to setting up central, public registers of beneficial ownership. Dell also echoed the suggestion made by several States Parties to establish a dedicated Working Group, which will discuss gaps in the current global anti-corruption architecture. With regards to exploring new approaches, Dell also referred to the recently published recommendations of the FACTI Panel, as well as to TI and the Coalition’s joint proposal for a Multilateral Agreement on Asset Recovery

The representative of the US discussed the new American legislation on beneficial ownership, reaffirming the importance of such registries as a means to ensure accurate and timely beneficial ownership information. She also stressed the need to strengthen the existing UNCAC Implementation Review Mechanism and encouraged the publication of the full country reports. Finally, she called for greater involvement of civil society and other non-governmental stakeholders in the country reviews, and to make sure they have the resources, independence, and freedom to hold countries accountable.   

The Nigerian Panelist urged Member States to make progress in the implementation of UNCAC Chapter V on Asset Recovery and highlighted that more often than not, critical information necessary for asset recovery is not openly shared by States Parties with other jurisdictions and that such obstacles should be removed.  

Referring to the ongoing debate on whether the UNGASS should promote the establishment of new multilateral mechanisms or rather focus on strengthening the implementation of existing commitments, Colombia requested States Parties to avoid a fake dichotomy between advancing the implementation of the UNCAC and developing new anti-corruption tools and commitments, as these can be compatible and be used and developed simultaneously.

Will the UNGASS high-level meeting deliver on its promises?

Raising the Bar on Beneficial Ownership Transparency Standards

During the panel discussion titled ‘Beneficial ownership transparency and the role of the private sector in supporting anti-corruption efforts,’ the Italian chair of the G20 Anti-Corruption Working Group referred to growing concerns in the EU from investors over unknown beneficial ownership. During its chairmanship of the G20, Italy will focus on examining the implementation of beneficial ownership standards by the G20 members, and on the integrity of the private sector. The speaker referred to a UNODC/World Bank study that found that corporate vehicles were used in 150 of the 213 grand corruption investigations it examined. He stressed the need to focus not only on final beneficial owners but on the traceability of bank accounts and financial activities, such as the transition from cash to virtual assets. 

A representative of the Bank of Norway and member of the FACTI panel discussed the private sector’s role as an enabler of corruption. She updated the meeting on a new Norwegian law from 2020 requiring all companies, regardless of their size, and foreign trust funds operating in the country, to provide up to date data on their beneficial owners, also mentioning that in Norway, no fees are required when requesting data on beneficial ownership. Bearing in mind the recommendations of the FACTI panel, she reiterated that the international community cannot tackle corruption without operating through a holistic approach, as corruption is evidently intertwined with illicit financial flows and tax evasion. 

During the exchange of views following this panel, the UK’s representative highlighted that transparency cannot be overstated throughout the political declaration, specifically with regards to public contracting. He emphasized that transparency is a preventative tool in ending safe-havens, as well as a tool to improve the business environment by building trust and competition. In this regard, the delegate stated that the private sector should accept voluntary measures going beyond compliance. 

Public Access is Key to Effective Prevention

The last panel discussion focused on ‘Harnessing the full potential of education and technology in efforts to prevent and combat corruption.’ Slovenia introduced technological solutions aiming for greater transparency in its anti-corruption efforts, which includes an application to monitor public spending, an open data portal, a beneficial ownership registry, and electronic forms for the declaration of assets by public officials – all of these tools are open to the public, and frequently used by investigative journalists and civil society. 

The UNCAC Coalition was last to take the floor during the meeting. In our statement, we highlighted the advantages of public access to beneficial ownership registries and public procurement portals, building on the example of the UK’s accessible public procurement portal that estimated a yearly benefit of £1 – £3 billion. We urged Member States to join the 45 countries that are already fully committed to implementing beneficial ownership transparency, stressing that the UNGASS provides a unique window of opportunity to scale this effort globally – and for those countries to follow through with their commitments. From the sidelines, it, unfortunately, appears that too many EU countries are not actively pushing to scale the agreed EU minimum standards, which require national beneficial ownership registries that are accessible to the public.  

To have a closer look at the state of preparations for the UNGASS and the negotiations of the Political Declaration, read this blog post.

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