Delivering Justice on the Ground: The Challenges of Fighting Corruption at the National and International Levels

The fight against corruption at the national and international levels is a topic of unabated relevance for the United Nations and its Member States, as intolerance of corruption is growing around the world.

On the occasion of the first High-level Meeting of the General Assembly on the Rule of Law at the National and International Levels on 24 September 2012, the Heads of State and Government and heads of delegation adopted an important political Declaration by consensus. With this, they reaffirmed their commitment to the rule of law and its fundamental importance for political dialogue and cooperation among all States and for the further development of the three main pillars upon which the United Nations is built: international peace and security, human rights and development. They agreed that the collective response to the challenges and opportunities arising from the many complex political, social and economic transformations before us must be guided by the rule of law, as it is the foundation of friendly and equitable relations between States and the basis upon which just and fair societies are built.

Quite remarkably, the Declaration contains a separate paragraph on the issue of corruption, which is dealt with rather extensively:

25. We are convinced of the negative impact of corruption, which obstructs economic growth and development, erodes public confidence, legitimacy and transparency and hinders the making of fair and effective laws, as well as their administration, enforcement and adjudication, and therefore stress the importance of the rule of law as an essential element in addressing and preventing corruption, including through strengthening cooperation among States concerning criminal matters.

It seems to be common sense that corruption has enormous detrimental effects. However, the fact that the Declaration adopted unanimously deals with the topic of corruption in such an extensive way clearly shows that the United Nations membership, as a whole, attaches great importance to it and the rule of law, and rightly so.

Corruption is a phenomenon that affects all countries. No State is immune to it, regardless of its level of economic or social development. When we read our own countries´ newspapers, corruption scandals are regularly featured. The forms and intensity of corruption might differ from country to country, and some societies are definitely more affected by it than others, but it is a fact that corruption exists everywhere, as we realize when looking at the statistics of Transparency International. Corruption scandals are, on one hand, a bitter pill to swallow for a country but, on the other hand, may trigger a sometimes necessary and always healthy self-cleansing process of a society. In addition to legal proceedings based on effective anti-corruption provisions in criminal law, parliamentary committees of inquiry may help to reveal political responsibilities up to the government level in connection with allegations of corruption.

Corruption is a phenomenon that affects everyone in society. Whether you represent a small or big business or work in public service, whether you are an employer or self-employed, poor or rich, you will be affected by corruption, directly or indirectly, since the costs of corruption are suffered by society as a whole. All parts of society, therefore, have an interest in containing corruption, and must share the responsibility. Corruption must never be perceived as an inalterable fact of life. We all can, and should, have our share in enhancing a culture of transparency, integrity and accountability.

Corruption undermines human development and severely impacts and derails a country's progress, including achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). By diverting public resources to private profits and reducing access to public services, corruption runs counter to the basic interests and needs of every society, and poses a threat to economic development and social stability. Corruption occurs in all countries, regardless of their social and economic development, but it is also clear that corruption hurts the poor disproportionately and hinders efforts to achieve the MDGs, poverty eradication and human development by reducing access to services and diverting resources from investments in infrastructure, institutions, education and social services. Development programmes need to take into account the link between development and organized crime, and anti-corruption measures should be duly considered in development activities.

Corruption weakens economic growth. Since it distorts economic decision-making, it also deters investments and undermines competitiveness. Anti-corruption is now firmly established as one of the principles of the United Nations Global Compact, the largest corporate sustainability initiative in the world and one of the main interfaces of the United Nations with the business community. The private sector plays a crucial role as an essential stakeholder in the fight against corruption. Governments cannot succeed in preventing and fighting corrupt practices without their cooperation and efforts. During an event organized jointly by Austria, Estonia, Japan and Tunisia in the margins of the General Assembly High-level Meeting on the Rule of Law, a representative of Mitsubishi Corporation stated that when some companies feel they can disregard anti-corruption legislation, the uneven playing field hurts those companies prepared to play by the rules. It also redistributes economic advantage away from more efficient and socially desirable uses in favour of an entrenched and sometimes corrupt elite. Governments, companies and citizens everywhere should thus have an interest in creating a more uniformly enforced anti-corruption legislation and in promoting the rule of law in order to further the common good. If bribery is a tool of commerce, the result is an uneven playing field where compliant companies are effectively excluded from certain markets. Faced with such challenges, it is not unusual for those companies to turn down a project or turn away from a country; it is the law-abiding, hard-working citizens of that country who become affected.

Corruption has a negative effect on the functioning of democratic institutions. It is a threat to governance and the stability of young and often still fragile democracies. Corruption undermines the legitimacy of government and democratic values, and it weakens the State as it undermines its credibility and damages people's trust in State institutions. Fighting corruption, therefore, needs to go hand in hand with strengthening the rule of law and good governance, and in building strong institutions which, in turn, are the foundation for sustainable development.

According to World Bank estimates, $1 to 2 trillion are lost to corruption every year, i.e., 10 times the annual budget of all 34 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries combined. Corruption is not only a national problem but also an international and transnational one that requires global solutions.

The United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) that entered into force in 2005 now forms the basis for our international efforts to combat corruption. It is the only legally binding universal anti-corruption instrument with a rapidly growing and impressive number of State Parties, totalling 164 as of 9 November 2012. Universal adherence to UNCAC and its full implementation must be our common goal.

First and foremost, corruption requires prevention. Therefore, an entire chapter of UNCAC is dedicated to prevention, with measures directed at both the public and private sectors. With regard to criminalization, it calls attention to basic forms of corruption such as bribery and embezzlement of public funds; trading in influence and the concealment and laundering of the proceeds of corruption; and offences committed in support of corruption, such as money-laundering and the obstruction of justice. As already mentioned, corruption is a transnational problem. Therefore, an important part of the Convention deals with cooperation between State Parties in every aspect of the fight against corruption. These are bound to render specific forms of mutual legal assistance in gathering and transferring evidence for use in court to extradite offenders, and they are required to undertake measures which will support the tracing, freezing, seizure and confiscation of the proceeds of corruption. Furthermore, countries agreed on asset recovery as a fundamental principle of the Convention -- a particularly important aspect for many developing countries where high-level corruption has plundered the national wealth, and where resources are badly needed for the rebuilding of societies.
The role of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) as guardian of the UNCAC is central. UNODC's wide range of anti-corruption activities including the facilitation of the UNCAC Implementation Review Mechanism, the provision of technical assistance in furtherance of the implementation of the Convention, cooperation with the World Bank in the form of the Joint Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative as well as global awareness-raising and prevention efforts are highly commendable. All Member States should provide their continued support for the important work of UNODC in this regard.

Together with UNODC, Austria promoted the idea of establishing an international anti-corruption academy for many years. Such an institution was set up in Austria by the Agreement on the establishment of the International Anti-Corruption Academy (IACA) in September 2010. Since then, the number of States and international organizations forming part of the IACA's overall constituency has increased from 36 to 61. Within a very short period of time, the IACA has managed to become operative and to offer training programmes, seminars and workshops. By the end of 2012, IACA will start a two-year course for the world's first Master in Anti-Corruption Studies, consisting of seven intensive 12-day modules taking place at the IACA campus in Austria and one, in cooperation with the Malaysia Anti-Corruption Commission and other partners, in Malaysia. IACA is a pioneering institution that aims to overcome current shortcomings in knowledge and practice in the field of anti-corruption. It functions as an independent centre of excellence in the field of anti-corruption education, training, networking and cooperation, as well as academic research. It pursues a holistic approach which is international, interdisciplinary, intersectoral, integrative and sustainable.

Maintaining a strong rule of law does not necessarily come automatically. It is an everyday challenge. We are all called upon every day to uphold the rule of law when carrying out our duties. This is not always easy, especially in difficult economic times.