Opening statement by Navi Pillay, High Commissioner for Human Rights: Panel on “the negative impact of corruption on human rights”

Geneva, 13 March 2013.

This post was originally published on the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights website.

Distinguished panellists,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I applaud the Council for its leadership on the important topic you will discuss today: the profoundly negative impact of corruption on human rights.

Let us be clear. Corruption kills. The money stolen through corruption every year is enough to feed the world’s hungry 80 times over. Nearly 870 million people go to bed hungry every night, many of them children; corruption denies them their right to food, and, in some cases, their right to life.

Bribes and theft swell the total cost of projects to provide safe drinking water and sanitation around the world by as much as 40 per cent. Money siphoned from the public treasury could have been spent to meet development needs, to lift people out of poverty; to provide children with education; to bring to families essential medicine; and to stop the hundreds of preventable deaths and injuries during pregnancy and childbirth that occur every day.

Corruption hits the poor first and hardest, and today, we will hear more about this from the testimonies of two panellists. But the negative impact of corruption on the enjoyment of human rights goes far beyond economic, social and cultural rights. Corruption in the administration of justice — which permits perpetrators to go unpunished so long as they pay bribes — creates a vicious cycle of crime. In human rights terms, it denies access to justice for victims, it exacerbates inequality, weakens governance and institutions, erodes public trust, fuels impunity and undermines the rule of law — in particular the right to a fair trial, the right to due process, and the victim’s right to effective redress.

There is no doubt that, in practical terms, corruption is an enormous obstacle to the realization of all human rights — civil, political, economic, social and cultural, as well as the right to development. Corruption violates the core human rights principles of transparency, accountability, non-discrimination and meaningful participation in every aspect of life of the community. Conversely, these principles, when upheld and implemented, are the most effective means to fight corruption.

A human rights-based approach to anti-corruption responds to the people’s resounding call for a social, political and economic order that delivers on the promises of “freedom from fear and want”. This is precisely what my Office has been working to emphasize in the post 2015 development agenda, because we are convinced that efforts to combat corruption are most effective when coupled with an approach that respects all human rights, including those of the accused.

There is growing awareness of the intrinsic links between human rights and the struggle to combat corruption. As a result, we are seeing increasing activism on the part of UN human rights mechanisms such as the treaty bodies, special procedures and the Universal Periodic Review. But the stakes are high, and we cannot afford to spread ourselves thin. There is an urgent need to increase synergy between efforts to implement the United Nations Convention against Corruption and international human rights conventions. Strengthened policy coherence and collaboration is required between the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, UNDP, my Office, civil society and the intergovernmental processes in Vienna, Geneva and New York. Today’s panel and its composition is a testimony to this effort.

Corruption is not a localized problem specific to certain countries, regions, societies, or traditions. It plagues not only public offices but also businesses, sports and more. Corruption is also global. It is reported that from 2000 to 2009, developing countries lost US$8.44 trillion to illicit financial flows, 10 times more than the foreign aid they received. In times of protracted financial and economic crises, people, especially the poor and the marginalized, cannot be expected to absorb austerity measures while public funds are not managed in a transparent and accountable manner. The impact of corruption on development and on human rights is multifaceted; so too must be our response.

Some liken the global and popular demands to combat corruption to a new human rights movement, for both anti-corruption and the promotion of human rights share similar values: justice, fairness and the rule of law conducive to a life of dignity. I prefer to see these two approaches as complementary. As we continue to clarify the links between corruption and human rights, groups working to combat corruption locally and internationally will see more clearly the value of working with agencies in the field of human rights – and the reverse is of course true as well.

I therefore commend the leadership of this panel’s key sponsors, and indeed all the Council members, for bringing this important discussion into the Human Rights Council. Corruption violates human rights; let us pool our thoughts and efforts together, and fight it as one.

Thank you.