Why the fight against corruption matters for the future of democracy
July 2, 2021
Originally Published in Hill Times , 21 June 2021
Originally Published in Hill Times , 21 June 2021
Though not on the front pages of the New York Times, an executive order issued June 8 by President Joe Biden intended to modernize U.S. sanctions policy in the Western Balkans—is a big deal. As a prelude to the G7 summit, not only did it symbolize the U.S. administration’s resolve to address global environmental threats such as planetary warming and pandemics (because of mismanaged expenditures and poor policy choices, they are more damaging than they should have been), but also its intention to address man-made threats to the survival of liberal democracy—specifically, “grand corruption” and human rights abuses. The sanctions will no doubt create immediate unease amongst political leaders who enrich themselves while seeking to undermine core European values in EU candidate countries, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina. They will also, however, send a strong signal to America’s European allies, particularly Germany and France, that continued violations of core EU principles by member countries such as Bulgaria, Hungary, and Poland can no longer be tolerated. For the threats are not just to Europe.
The rule of law, an independent judiciary, and a free press are critical lifelines to healthy democracies everywhere, but anathema to illiberal leaders with authoritarian instincts. Witness the behaviours of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Poland’s Law and Justice government, and yes, even Donald Trump. The recent revelation that the Trump Justice Department used the FBI to surreptitiously investigate his critics in Congress—a co-equal branch of government under the U.S. Constitution not only reveals his fear of being criminally investigated, but also exposes a serious threat to the very fabric of American democracy and by extension to democracies elsewhere. With the widespread erosion of trust in many democratically elected governments and the often-violent reaction of the millennial generation to corruption and state capture by political leaders elected both legitimately and illegitimately, we are being awakened to how menacing is corruption as a weapon in what has become the new cold war between democratic and authoritarian governance.
“the cost of corruption annually is in the trillions of dollars and more than five per cent of global GDP”
While foreign aid has sought to nurture faith in public policy, services and good governance, it has too often been neutralized by corruption and wilful mismanagement, and often tolerated by donor nations for reasons of their own political or economic interest. It is estimated by the international financial institutions that the cost of corruption annually is in the trillions of dollars and more than five per cent of global GDP, with developing countries in aggregate losing 10 times more to corruption than they receive in development aid. Much of that loss is incurred in countries where political leaders control the media, and the prosecutors and judges—the pillars of the justice system. Despite the presence of anti-corruption laws and the signature by more than 180 governments to the UN Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), political leaders too often act with impunity, as we have seen in Russia, Belarus, and Cameroon. In the Western Balkans, the primary target of Biden’s decree, former war profiteers maintain their hold on power and access to wealth through appeals to nationalism and xenophobia. They are supported enthusiastically by other more powerful kleptocrats, for example Putin, who exploit an unspoken tolerance for corruption by some democratic governments, as an effective instrument in undermining trust and faith in the democratic process and its institutions.
So, while Biden’s anti-corruption decree is necessary, without a mechanism to actually hold corrupt political and business associates to account, it is insufficient. Also needed is the anti-corruption equivalent of the International Criminal Court (ICC), established to hold political leaders and public officials accountable for war crimes and egregious human rights violations.
In this episode of the Global Governance Podcast, Augusto Lopez-Claros and guest, Senior U.S. District Judge Mark Wolf discuss kleptocracies and the need for an international anti-corruption court.
An effort to do this has been initiated by U.S. Judge Mark Wolf and South African Supreme Court Judge Richard Goldstone, the chief prosecutor of the UN criminal trials for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. It is actively supported, inter alia, by former Canadian foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy. The proposed International Anti Corruption Court (IACC) would have jurisdiction to prosecute any head of state or government and anyone who conspires with them, should they violate a statute in the UNCAC or in their own national legal code. No new legal obligations would be required since the IACC would effectively appropriate the laws of the country in which the crime takes place and in which the leaders themselves are the obstacle to domestic prosecution and enforcement. Indeed, the framers of the proposal recommend that “submitting to the jurisdiction of the IACC could be made a requirement of being a party to UNCAC and a member of the World Trade Organization. It could also be made a prerequisite for receiving bilateral foreign aid, and loans from the World Bank and other development organizations.”
If the Canadian government is serious about countering the authoritarian threat to liberal democracy— while supporting a global development process necessary to effectively address global poverty, human rights abuses, migration, global warming, and pandemics—it needs to proactively associate itself with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Nobel Prize laureates, former heads of state and government, and international NGOs who have signed a petition to support the creation of the IACC. Specifically, the Trudeau government needs to actively support the sentiments laid out by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken: “The U.S. recognizes that corruption threatens economic equity, global anti-poverty and development efforts, and democracy itself.” In doing so, its actions will be more aligned with the lofty foreign and development policy goals often laid out by the prime minister.