Recap of our IACC Panel: Setting the Anti-Corruption Agenda for the UNGASS 2021 against Corruption

9 December 2020 –

The UNCAC Coalition hosted a high-level online workshop to discuss priorities of the first-ever UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) against corruption as part of the 19th International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC), which took place from 30 November to 5 December 2020.

FACTI-Panel Co-Chair Ibrahim Mayaki discussed the weaknesses the Panel had identified in the international anti-corruption framework; Shervin Majlessi of UNODC presented the time-table of preparations of the UNGASS as well as issues Member States had covered in their submissions; and Gillian Dell of Transparency International highlighted key priorities, including introducing publicly accessible central registers of beneficial ownership, addressing and prosecuting cross-border corruption and grand corruption, advancing asset recovery and ensuring follow-up actions on the findings of the FACTI Panel and the political declaration of the UNGASS.

UNCAC Coalition Chair Helen Darbishire, who is the Executive Director of Access Info Europe, moderated the workshop which sought to raise awareness of the UNGASS within the anti-corruption community and to contribute to the preparation of the UNGASS and its political declaration.

To watch a recording of the UNCAC Coalition’s IACC workshop, please click here.

Main outcomes of the session

  • Representatives of the FACTI Panel and civil society encourage Member States to agree on a Political Declaration that is bold and that does not just replicate old solutions. Proposals of protocols to the UNCAC and the setting up of task forces to further discuss follow-up mechanisms to the Convention should be seriously considered.
  • There is a need for effective follow-up on the findings of the review mechanism of the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), of the recommendations made by the FACTI Panel and especially of the commitments that will be made in the UNGASS Political Declaration.
  • Member States involved in the negotiation of the Political Declaration should inform themselves of different points of view and get as much outside input as possible, for instance from civil society groups, in order to ensure a great outcome.
  • Changes are not significant if they are top-down, they have to be bottom-up. The involvement of non-state actors, such as civil society, the media and the private sector are crucial in these processes and the fight against corruption overall. Parliaments could and should also play a more important role to ensure that States commit to and implement bold and substantive anti-corruption reforms.
  • The establishment of publicly accessible centralised beneficial ownership registers around the world, together with stricter sanctions for the enablers of corruption would be important steps in the right direction, to ensure more transparency.
  • A rights-based approach that takes into account citizens, for example, regarding the compensation of victims of corruption, is crucial.

The three high-level panellists outlined their work on the UNGASS from different perspectives: First, Ibrahim Assane Mayaki, Co-Chair of the FACTI Panel, the UN expert panel on financial accountability, transparency and integrity, which was established by the Presidents of the General Assembly and ECOSOC to tackle the issue of how to best finance the Agenda 2030, spoke about the Panel’s work. The Panel firmly believes that the UNGASS offers a unique opportunity for Member States to come together and agree on long-lasting and systemic solutions on key issues, such as those outlined in its interim report, which was published in September 2020:

  • International instruments lack coordination. They overlap and complement each other in many ways and the FACTI Panel calls for systemic responses.
  • Non-trial resolutions are often used in bribery cases but no guidelines exist on how to best use them and keep them transparent.
  • There is little cooperation with authorities in demand-side countries which may lead to impunity, which is a major concern for the FACTI Panel. Corruption involving vast quantities of assets makes headlines globally, but there is no accountability.
  • The volume of assets returned to its origin countries is only a tiny fraction of proceeds laundered worldwide. Cooperation on asset recovery is not working: it is burdensome and very lengthy, especially those cases that try to recover assets from former kleptocratic rulers. There is no trust between the jurisdictions involved.
  • The implementation of the UNCAC has fallen short. The Panel recognizes that the Implementation Review Mechanism is a good achievement, but it is still not comprehensive enough.

The FACTI Panel is currently developing its final report on how to close this gap, which will be published in late January/early February 2021. It will give Member States ideas on actions to take, but it will be up to them to decide which ones to take on. However, the FACTI Panel remains convinced that recommendations are not enough. Political engagement is very much needed at the national and international level to reach a shared understanding on how to achieve them. Furthermore, Mr. Mayaki highlighted the importance of involving civil society, the private sector and media in anti-corruption discussions. Shervin Majlessi, Chief of Section of the Corruption & Economic Crime Branch at UNODC, provided a general overview of the timeline of the UNGASS preparatory process:

  • 17 December 2018: General Assembly resolution 73/191 decided to hold a special session on corruption in 2021 – a good opportunity to look back at the anti-corruption instruments and the progress that has been made.
  • 19 December 2019 at the UNCAC COSP 8, UAE: a draft resolution was adopted, which the General Assembly adopted in June 2020, which lays out the modalities for the UNGASS, such as the participation of civil society in this process.
  • 31 August 2020: General Assembly decision 74/568 set new dates for the UNGASS, to be held from 2-4 June 2021 in New York.
  • 2-4 September 2020: first COSP intersessional with a thematic focus on prevention and criminalization.
  • 19-20 November 2020: second COSP intersessional with a thematic focus on asset recovery and international cooperation.
  • 22-23 February 2021: third COSP intersessional with the thematic focus yet to be determined.
  • 7 May 2021: Special session of the UNCAC COSP, where the Political Declaration will be approved.
  • 2-4 June 2021: UN General Assembly Special Session against Corruption (UNGASS) in New York.

All of these meetings are open to civil society, according to established practice, and that submissions can be made to the preparatory process. Another important channel for civil society of influencing the political declaration is approach Member States and especially those who are conducting these negotiations.  Similarly, States should inform themselves outside of the negotiations on other ideas. Since August 2020, the Political Declaration has been and is continuously being negotiated by Member States in informal intergovernmental consultations, which are being co-facilitated by the United Arab Emirates and Peru. 

Although it remains to be seen what the final version of the Political Declaration will say, Mr. Majlessi provided an overview of seven major topics that Member States included in their submissions to the preparatory process:

  1. Prevention strategies and the role of anti-corruption bodies, transparency, beneficial ownership transparency, the financing of political parties, access to information, and including of other groups;
  2. Criminalization and law enforcement, means to end impunity, acts of corruption in public and private sectors, adequate sanctions of natural and legal persons, strong criminal justice systems and due process, respect for fundamental rights, effective justice sector cooperation, a safe and enabling environment for reporting persons, witnesses, investigative journalists, and other persons reporting on corruption (including whistleblowers, although this is a word that is not used in the Convention);
  3. International cooperation, effective cross-border enforcement, address difficulties of lengthy processes, create multilateral commitments to strengthen regional and international networks;
  4. Asset recovery for sustainable development, cooperation between countries, flexible instruments including non-conviction based confiscations, management of asset return;
  5. Technical assistance and information exchange, sharing information, the availability of technical assistance (especially in times of COVID-19), joint action to address technical assistance gaps;
  6. Cross-cutting issues:
    1. Mainstreaming anti-corruption to achieve the Agenda 2030 and the SDGs,
    2. The use of new technologies in the fight against corruption,
    3. Address links between corruption and transnational organised crime,
    4. Address links between gender and corruption,
    5. Corruption measurement;
  7. Address long-term efforts to address corruption in COVID-19, anti-corruption education in the United Nations. 

Finally, Gillian Dell, Head of Conventions Unit at Transparency International laid out her organization’s work on a few priority issues, which are part of their submission to the UNGASS preparatory process, with beneficial ownership transparency being a cross-cutting issue among all three areas:

First, cross-border cooperation in anti-corruption matters is still lacking coordination. Especially regarding the sanctioning of foreign bribery, there is a lack of political will, a lack of beneficial ownership transparency, barriers to international cooperation, weakness in legal frameworks, as well as a lack of resources in enforcement areas in lead exporting countries. Furthermore, there is lack of transparency in enforcement processes in court and out of court settlements, and when cases are brought, there is little consideration of compensation of state and civilian victims – assets go right back into national budgets.

Second, international asset recovery processes, from the tracing, freezing, confiscation and return of assets to their origin country, needs to become more effective as nowadays, only a fraction of the stolen money has been returned. In another submission, Transparency International calls for the development of guidelines on asset recovery, in order to leave long-standing disputes among States regarding this issue in the past.

The third area Transparency International has focused its work on is grand corruption, also known as corruption involving vast quantities of assets, which continues to cause great harm to the people affected. Impunity and interference in the justice system are often barriers to holding those high-level officials involved in such corrupt practices to account. Transparency International calls for the establishment of a Working Group or task force established to look into how to sanction grand corruption, for example through a protocol to the UNCAC, to address the issue of immunities, the return of assets, etc. This Working Group should consider reforms to international criminal systems.

Finally, Transparency International proposes a mandate for UNODC or another body to follow up on the Political Declaration with a task force and follow-up mechanism to the UNCAC. This should also follow up on the FACTI Panel recommendations, which Member States should take into consideration for the Political Declaration as well.

According to a poll that the UNCAC Coalition held during the workshop, the three most important commitments governments should make at the UNGASS are beneficial ownership registries with public access (15%), tackling impunity in grand corruption cases (15%) and transparency in public procurement/open contracting (14%).

Key recommendations and follow-up actions:

  • Member States should work towards a bold UNGASS Political Declaration that ensures substantive progress.
  • In the context of the preparation of the UNGASS Political Declaration, Member States should be open to the suggestions from civil society and other anti-corruption stakeholders, such as the FACTI Panel.
  • Civil society groups and interested stakeholders should use the last weeks of 2020 and the first weeks of 2021 to engage with the UNGASS process in order to advocate for progress and bold commitments, for example through written submissions or by engaging governments and their negotiators directly.
  • States should in particular agree to advancing the recovery and return of illicit assets, agree to implementing central, publicly accessible registries of beneficial company ownership, advancing access to information and transparency, in particular in the context of public procurement (open contracting, etc.).
  • States should put an end and advance efforts to end impunity and hold leaders to account, especially in corruption cases involving vast quantities of assets.
  • Member States should establish an effective follow-up mechanism for the UN Convention against Corruption that monitors the implementation of the recommendations made during the reviews, is transparent and involves civil society and other non-governmental stakeholders in the process.