What are the struggles faced by human rights defenders and civil society working against corruption? A Summary of our IRG Side Event

1 August 2022 – 

What are the obstacles to civil society participation in efforts to combat corruption and how can their engagement be strengthened? At a side event organized by the UNCAC Coalition, with the support of Switzerland, on the margins of the 13th session of the Implementation Review Group (IRG) in Vienna, five panelists discussed the findings and recommendations of UN Special Rapporteur Mary Lawlor’s recent report, entitled “At the heart of the struggle: human rights defenders working against corruption”.

Furthermore, opportunities to strengthen the participation of civil society in the UNCAC Conference of the States Parties, as well as efforts and ideas to improve the transparency and inclusiveness of the UNCAC review process, were proposed by the UNCAC Coalition. Moderated by the UNCAC Coalition’s Managing Director Mathias Huter, the hybrid session was attended by almost 90 delegates, governmental experts and civil society representatives. 

Martin Matter, Head of Economic Affairs Section, Prosperity and Sustainability Division, Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland, stressed that, unfortunately, human rights are not mentioned in the United Nations Convention against Corruption, while the link between human rights and the fight against corruption is obvious: Corruption affects human rights, while human rights are key to fighting corruption. Realizing human rights requires effective and accountable institutions. He stressed that Switzerland had been advocating for strong language on human rights in the UNGASS political declaration, particularly on civil liberties like the freedom of peaceful assembly and association. However, the Swiss argument that human rights create a civic space and an environment where civil society can operate freely and safely and demand accountability, was not met with a consensus and the outcome was rather weak language (in paragraph 21).

Matter stressed that the human rights and anti-corruption communities are like-minded: they share the common goal of ensuring that the State is at the service of the people. And the communities need to come together, learn from each other and inspire each other. Furthermore, Matter highlighted the need for greater cooperation between UN bodies in Geneva focused on human rights, and Vienna, as well as for anti-corruption practitioners to engage with the information collected through the universal periodic review and special procedures produced by the UN Human Rights Council on issues such as freedom of expression, civic space, integrity and independence of the judicial system. 

Nayareth Calfulaf, Analyst from the Cooperation and International Relations Unit, Office of the Comptroller General of the Republic of Chile highlighted that Supreme Audit Institution in Chile supports the findings of the Special Rapporteur’s report and has undertaken several steps to protect human rights defenders fighting corruption. These include developing a confidential whistleblowing mechanism, civil society engagement through the Civil Society Council and in formulating the national anti-corruption strategy, as well as launching the ‘Anti-Corruption Alliance UNCAC Chile’ to increase cooperation with CSOs.

Additionally, the Comptroller’s Office is actively encouraging civil society participation in Chile’s second cycle UNCAC review (which is ongoing) and overseeing law enforcement in order to prevent human rights violations.  

​​Brian Dooley, Senior Advisor to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders introduced the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders’ report which seeks to spotlight activists who work on corruption. Not only is anti-corruption the most lethal issue to work on and threatens the lives of human rights defenders, but they are not provided with adequate protection, as corruption has seldom been considered a human rights issue.

The report finds that anti-corruption defenders have made headway with their advocacy. For example, the NGO Patients of Ukraine have reduced the price of leukemia pills from $99 to $2 a pill by making the public procurement system more transparent. However, anti-corruption human rights defenders still face many challenges and risks such as public smearing campaigns, SLAPP suits, harassment, and murder. Given the transnational nature of corruption, human rights defenders have been targeted globally. The report provides a long list of recommendations, including ensuring protection and support for anti-corruption human rights defenders through more explicit references in the UNCAC and national anti-corruption initiatives and protection programs. The participation of human rights defenders in the UNCAC reviews and country visits should also be facilitated. 

Danella Newman and Denyse Degiorgio highlighted the UNCAC Coalition’s work to amplify civil society voices and facilitate civil society contributions to the UNCAC review process:

The UNCAC review mechanism still has major limitations when it comes to civil society participation and ensuring transparency and accountability throughout the process. Danella Newman, Project Manager at the UNCAC Coalition, outlined some of these shortcomings. Firstly, the participation of civil society is restricted due to their inability to acquire information on the status of the review. Secondly, civil society is excluded from the CoSP and its subsidiary bodies. Thirdly, the transparency of review documents is lacking as the publication of the self-assessment checklist and full country report is optional. 

In response, the UNCAC Coalition has launched an UNCAC Review Tracker that compiles information on the status of national reviews, focal points, and published documents. Furthermore, the Coalition engages CSOs in the review process and assists them in producing parallel reports on the UNCAC implementation in their country, which is then shared with their government agencies. Newman urged States Parties to address these limitations of the UNCAC review mechanism by signing the Coalition’s Transparency Pledge, six simple principles to bolster transparency during the second cycle of the UNCAC review process.

Denyse Degiorgio, Project Officer at the UNCAC Coalition, also encouraged civil society to tackle the lack of transparency in the review process by submitting Freedom of Information (FOI) requests through the Coalition’s Access to Information Campaign. The success of this initiative has been apparent, as 10 ​official, previously inaccessible, UNCAC review documents have been published as a result. However, constraints on access to information are still prevalent as many governments ignore requests or outwardly refuse to disclose information for several reasons, among them, national security concerns and ongoing negotiations. 

Next Steps 

Following the presentations by speakers, the panelists and participants discussed the use of the “human rights approach” in anti-corruption, the potential for a UN Special Rapporteur on Corruption and what tactics anti-corruption activists can learn from other human rights defenders. Additionally, participants raised the issue of how embassies can provide technical assistance to human rights defenders, as well as how the latter can be more effectively involved in Vienna-based UN fora. Martin Matter suggested that a human rights approach can be developed by fighting corruption that specifically affects economic, social and cultural rights. Brian Dooley further added that anti-corruption activists should receive guidelines from embassies on their protection, as well as undertake digital security training. The session ended with Danella Newman drawing attention to the importance of including civil society in official country delegations to the CoSP or IRG meetings, as well as granting them official observer status.