UNCAC + UDHR = Collective Power!

14 July 2015, by Keith Henderson

Marrying inextricably linked universal anti-corruption commitments and universal rights could help journalists, bloggers and whistleblowers everywhere.
Another reason for the anti-corruption, rights and international communities to march together on key issues of common concern.

Many do not realise that together the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) provide the legal foundation for the right of journalists, bloggers and whistleblowers to openly discuss and report on corruption. While some lawyers, advocacy groups, governments, international organisations and journalists cite the UDHR’s Article 19 as the legal basis for this fundamental right, the UNCAC is rarely ever mentioned.

Whether this divided community vision is a strategic and legal oversight or a miscalculation, the net result is a less unified system of legal and international support. This leaves vulnerable those in trouble for trying to do the right thing, and sometimes results in self-censorship for those who are not fully aware of their rights or the legal tools available to protect them.

Both the UNCAC and the UDHR should be routinely cited and used as the primary legal argument to protect the rights of journalists, bloggers and whistleblowers everywhere. It is time for all stakeholders to join hands on this most important set of issues and to collectively and strategically work together.

A cursory review of some of the UNCAC’s most relevant anti-corruption articles reveals that several are inextricably linked to the universal right to freedom of expression (Article 19), which pertains to everyone in virtually all countries around the world.

  • UNCAC Article 13 (1) (a-d) (supports Article 19 of the UDHR) requires countries to respect, promote and protect freedom of expression and the active participation of civil society in governance, including promoting and protecting the freedom to access information and to seek, receive, publish and disseminate information concerning corruption. The right of civil society to information, participation and government oversight is key to promoting anti-corruption.
  • UNCAC Article 13 (2) (supports Article 19) requires anti-corruption bodies to provide for both anonymous and open whistleblowing. In many countries whistleblowing is unsafe and it is not in the career interests of public or private sector whistleblowers to disclose their identity. Also, in many countries there is limited legal or career protection either in law or practice for whistleblowers that openly blow the whistle on corrupt actions, or for journalists or bloggers who rely on whistleblowers as sources of information.
  • UNCAC Article 10 (supports Article 19) legally mandates that countries make information on government decision- making and the risks of corruption available to the public. Promoting transparency and access to information on corruption is key to addressing and preventing corruption, promoting rights and exposing rights abuses related to corruption.
  • UNCAC Article 32 (supports Article19) legally mandates that countries provide protection to witnesses, experts and victims of corruption. This protection is often best done through the media, bloggers and sometimes the political support of the international community.
  • UNCAC Article 33 (supports Article 19) strongly recommends that countries protect whistleblowers and those who report corruption to the authorities. This protection is largely dependent on the universal right of the media and bloggers to dialogue and report on corruption.
  • UNCAC Article 8 (1) & (5) (supports both UNCAC Article 13 and UDHR Article 19) legally mandates that countries promote integrity and honesty among government officials through ethics codes based on global model codes of conduct. It also strongly recommends that officials regularly disclose their income and assets and make those disclosure statements accessible to the public. These codes and disclosure requirements are key to promoting freedom of expression and the universal rights of whistleblowers, journalists and bloggers everywhere.
  • UNCAC Article 11 (supports and elaborates on UDHR Articles 10 and 19 and the International Covenant Civil Political Rights Article 14 (1)) legally mandates for the first time that corruption within the judiciary be addressed in order to guarantee access to an independent, competent impartial judiciary with integrity. This unique UNCAC mandate is an extremely important institutional building block that is key to promoting freedom of expression and the universal rights of everyone, including whistleblowers, journalists and bloggers everywhere.

Global lessons learnt

What we have learnt from experience is most are unaware of the relevance or power of the UNCAC and the way it relates to rights and legal obligations under other human rights treaties.

This means that when a journalist, blogger, defence attorney or anti-corruption or human rights activist is investigated or imprisoned for speaking out about corruption, so often the response of the international community fails to harness the strength of the UNCAC. They raise rights alarms, protest and press governments to abide by their human rights obligations, which is all good of course. However, given the great number of journalists, bloggers and whistleblowers imprisoned, it is clear that the power of the UNCAC is needed. This is all for the good of course, but obviously it is not enough, given the number of the journalists, bloggers and whistleblowers threatened or in jail in many countries around the world today.  Now we also need to focus more on institution building measures to prevent abuses from recurring over-and-over.

The UNCAC highlights the fundamental right to freedom of expression within the context of addressing and preventing corruption. It also spells out – for the first time – the right to access information, report on corruption and address integrity issues within corrupt justice systems and other government institutions.

Taken together, the human rights and anti-corruption mandates establish the legal and institutional foundation to promote the rule of law. Since exercising freedom of expression and access to a justice system with integrity are fundamental to promoting human rights and addressing and preventing corruption, it is clear that these key treaties support each other on many corruption and rights fronts.

It is fundamental that anti-corruption campaigns or commitments to protecting universal human rights should not be taken seriously if they are not supported by parallel commitments and action to support freedom of expression and access to information. If individuals reporting on corruption or who are critical of the government are silenced, threatened, investigated or jailed through the arbitrary or unfair enforcement of the law, all anti-corruption and rights efforts are undermined and threatened.

Blog suggestion and questions

Future blogs on this and related subjects will delve more deeply into all of the important anti-corruption mandates and rights embedded in the UNCAC, particularly those that intersect with and support the UDHR and its covenants. They will also reference and highlight some of the existing and emerging research and tools on this important cross-cutting global topic.

One relatively new and excellent resource, which includes reference to many of the UNCAC articles that can be used as tools to both protect key rights and promote anti-corruption mandates is the “how-to” publication entitled: Reporting on corruption: A resource tool for governments and journalists.

This practical guide can also be used by civil society organisations, bloggers and businesses for various purposes, including training, awareness-raising, coalition-building and advocacy. It illustrates some of the key UNCAC mandates and good practices that either lend strong support to key rights under the UDHR and the ICCPR or further elaborate, through an anti-corruption lens, exactly what some of those rights include. Many do not yet see this as an important international law and good governance development, but it clearly is.

While other rights and anti-corruption mandates will be explored in future blogs, those relating to freedom of expression and access to fair and equal justice will be examined first, as they establish the underlying foundation for success on both the corruption and human rights fronts.

Responses, tweets, and requests are encouraged and should be addressed to Keith Henderson: @professoruncac & email hidden; JavaScript is required.