UNGASS 2021 on Corruption: Second Preparatory Meeting Highlights Need for Beneficial Ownership Transparency; Civil Society Calls for Substantive Progress

26 November 2020 –

Photo from the first CoSP intersessional meeting held in Vienna, September 2020

The second of three CoSP intersessional meetings in the run-up to the UNGASS 2021 against corruption took place virtually between 19-20 November.

The meeting discussed denying safe havens in the context of transnational corruption cases; good practices and informational availability to ‘freeze and seize’ corrupt proceeds; and asset recovery and optimised cooperation in complex multi-jurisdictional corruption cases. Diverse panel presentations were given by members of state bodies tasked with handling legal and financial corruption offences in their respective countries.

Civil Society Spotlight

Civil society speakers included the UNCAC Coalition, Transparency International (TI), Article 19 and the Centre for Civic and Political Rights (CCPR), as well as regional organisations and associations of parliamentarians.

In its statement, the UNCAC Coalition highlighted the need for bold steps and firm commitments on the path to meaningful progress instead of the usual repetitions of what has been agreed on before. Full beneficial ownership transparency is crucial to understanding who owns and controls legal entities around the world, and preventing corrupt actors from hiding. This information needs to be reported, published in central online registries, and be made accessible to public authorities and domestic as well as international investigators, the private sector, civil society and journalists, and thus to the public at large.

The positive experiences of the EU and the UK with publicly accessible beneficial ownership registries – the UK registry, which was the first such public registry, creating benefits of between 1 to 3 billion GBP per year – should be motivating enough for other states to follow suit.

Fullscreen Mode
Mathias Huter speaking on behalf of the UNCAC Coalition at the virtual second CoSP intersessional meeting

Gillian Dell of Transparency International and a board member of the UNCAC Coalition,  highlighted the urgent need to make progress with the recovery and return of stolen assets and to overcome key barriers, one important such barrier being a lack of beneficial ownership transparency.  The UNGASS should endorse central public registries of beneficial ownership of companies and trusts and formalise this in an international agreement, Dell said. Furthermore, she stressed the need to compensate victims of corruption, and to elaborate principles of transparent and accountable return of assets.

The world may not be watching while you negotiate the UNGASS political declaration but it will be watching when the political declaration is announced. We encourage you to ensure that the great opportunity offered by the UNGASS against Corruption is not wasted. (Gillian Dell, TI)

In light of the slow progress made on international corruption-related asset recovery, a joint statement and a written submission were made by TI and the UNCAC Coalition. The submission outlines provisions for a multilateral agreement on topics such as the compensation of victims of corruption and cementing global principles for asset recovery, among others. More countries should grant independent non-governmental organisations standing to initiate asset recovery procedures in the public interest. On the topic of the UNCAC itself, the fact that the Convention’s subsidiary bodies exclude participation of civil society as observers, is a glaring weakness.

Fullscreen Mode

David Banisar of Article 19, campaigning for freedom of expression and information, called for States Parties to look at the larger information ecology beyond beneficial ownership, where public access to information and data is fundamental. The importance of wider access to corporate registers, the transparency of asset disclosures of public officials, both elected and appointed, and public procurement was highlighted. Using the example of the Panama Papers, it is clear that with the information freely available to them, journalists and civil society are able and willing to take on the work of identifying high-level governmental wrongdoings and corruption scandals. Articles 10 and 13 of the UNCAC are especially pertinent here, and require support from States Parties. Nonetheless, these individuals and organisations require protection mechanisms, which the UNODC could consider setting up.

Fullscreen Mode

Numerous States Parties also voiced their support for input from civil society and the private sector in the compilation of the Political Declaration, considering participation crucial. As a core player in unveiling corruption and holding private and public sectors accountable, whistleblowers remain vulnerable to harassment, intimidation and threats. Independent media providers must be able to operate openly, safely and freely in order to perform their role of monitoring and scrutiny. The shrinking of civil society space should be explored and counteracted through the UNGASS 2021. Ultimately, enhanced partnerships with civil society will contribute to a balanced and comprehensive Political Declaration at the UNGASS and its effective implementation.

Topics & Trends of the Discussions

Beneficial ownership transparency was a recurring topic during the discussions of the second CoSP intersessional meeting. Discussions about using tools to measure corruption were complemented by support for sharing good practices to strengthen and improve implementation efforts, as well as the need to identify the shortcomings of existing tools. This involves elements of both reinforcing existing tools and mechanisms, but also making use of technological innovations and embracing digitised solutions rather than duplicating existing instruments, which could potentially undermine the UNCAC and the progress it has achieved to date.

Moreover, digitisation provides opportunities for increased transparency and enables public sector scrutiny in the fight against corruption. In a presentation during the second panel on ‘The paradigm of transparency and data on beneficial ownership’, Slovenia exemplified this through mention of its ERAR – a freely accessible, online application, granting insight into the transactions of public institutions; and a national open data portal which encompasses various tools and enhances access to public information about ownership registries.

Corruption risks have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, and existing challenges are now compounded by concerns over medical relief and assistance funding being diverted into corrupt hands, inadvertently or otherwise. In such trying times, e-cooperation can be an outlet for renewed dialogue among states in their anti-corruption efforts – some states highlighted innovation such as sending mutual legal assistance requests via email.

Updates on the Political Declaration

States Parties reiterated the importance of an inclusive preparatory process of the Political Declaration, which will be continuously negotiated until its adoption at a special CoSP on 7 May 2021, and consequently by the General Assembly. The Chair and co-facilitators of the negotiations communicated that additional contributions for the Declaration have been received from stakeholders such as INGOs and NGOs, bringing the number of submissions to 35. The latter will inspire the continuing discussions on the 24-25 November, although the UNCAC should be the guiding framework on which to base the Declaration.