United Nations Town Hall Meeting on Corruption, 20 June in Vienna

9 July 2012, by Gillian Dell, Transparency International.

What if governments got together and asked the people of the world: “How do you think we’re doing in our efforts against corruption”? And then listened. That’s what happened at the United Nations in Vienna on 20 June 2012 at a landmark all-day global town hall meeting attended by governments and NGO representatives.

The UN invited a few public interest organisations to a first-ever “briefing for NGOs” on the outcomes of the review process for the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC). The UNCAC review process checks governments’ compliance with their commitments under the global UN treaty against corruption adopted in 2003. The first cycle of reviews has been under way for over two years and covers the part of the treaty that aims to ensure sanctions for corruption crimes. The host of the UNCAC is the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Vienna. The governments that have signed up to the treaty hold regular follow-up meetings to check progress in UNCAC implementation and on the review process.

The way the briefing came about was as follows: At one of the UNCAC follow-up meetings in Marrakesh in November 2011, there was a big clash about whether to allow NGOs to be observers in the oversight body for the UNCAC review process, the Implementation Review Group (IRG) that meets in Vienna. NGO observer status is required by the rules of procedure but a few states were so opposed that governments decided instead to hold an NGO briefing alongside the IRG meeting. It was described as a confidence-building measure.

The recent NGO briefing took place in the middle of an IRG meeting during the week of 18 June 2012. Beforehand, NGOs were allowed to submit written reports as official documents of the IRG meeting. This was an important opportunity for NGO to make their views known about the review process and country performance. The UNCAC Coalition submitted five summary country reports and a summary overview report.

The reports looked at whether the review process was being conducted in the right way, with NGO participation and publication of relevant findings. They also analysed whether country legal frameworks and enforcement systems were strong enough to stop impunity for corruption crimes. A key question: Do countries have the systems in place to catch the big fish?

No one was sure what to expect on the day of the unprecedented briefing and anticipation was high. Even the seating arrangements were a subject of speculation. In the midst of a maze of UN politics, the big challenge for NGOs was to be constructive enough to build confidence while remaining true to any criticisms they had of the review process and of country performance in sanctioning corruption crimes.

About 30 NGOs from all over the world, mostly from the UNCAC Coalition, attended the Vienna briefing. Many of them had written reports evaluating country compliance. They were joined in the room by over 80 government representatives—one of them commented that it was the best turnout since Nicholas Cage had visited. There was excitement in the air.

The event was conducted like a regular IRG meeting and had full translation. It was opened by the chair, the seasoned Argentinian diplomat Eugenio Curia, who was also chairing the IRG meeting that week. Then two UNODC staff made short presentations totalling about 25 minutes about the UNCAC review process and its findings. After that the floor was opened up for comments from governments and NGOs and the statements filled the rest of the day. Many governments spoke up to welcome the NGOs and the forum. Most of the NGOs present delivered statements, starting with the Chair of the UNCAC Coalition, Vincent Lazatin of the Transparency and Accountability Network in the Philippines. He was followed by NGO representatives from Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, Chile, Ghana, India, Nigeria, Philippines, Russia, Zambia and many more.

The NGOs praised governments that had been open and transparent in their review process. They found fault with the fact that only a few governments had published their self-assessments and only one had published the full review report. They criticised governments which had not involved NGOs in the review process.

On the substance, the NGOs applauded governments for some progress in country legal frameworks to criminalise corruption but found some deficiencies in those frameworks. Of key importance, many of the NGO speakers found that countries were not enforcing their laws sufficiently. Many of them found that their countries lacked adequate whistleblower protection.

Was it a useful exchange? It was an important step in expanding global intergovernmental discussions on fighting corruption. Opening the door to NGO voices injected a healthy reality check into the formal and technical UN forum, with its sometimes arcane rules. And the NGOs demonstrated that, while critical, they could be constructive and could adapt—but not too much– to the formal UN environment.

What could be done better? First and foremost, NGOs should be given observer status in the IRG, as required by the rules of procedure and in line with the UNCAC’s emphasis on public participation in anti-corruption efforts. That way NGOs would not need a briefing. No sensitive matters are discussed in the IRG plenary. If present at IRG meetings, NGOs could intervene as issues arose and understand better the positions taken by government representatives.

But even if NGO observer status is finally introduced, UN town hall meetings between governments and NGOs like the one at on 20 June 2012 should still continue, providing fuller public feedback on government performance. The 20 June meeting could have been more structured and interactive and this should be a goal for the next one in June 2013. But it should certainly be retained. This kind of exchange at global level –as at national level –can help push forward anti-corruption efforts. As the UNCAC says, tackling corruption is not a governments-only subject—public participation is key.