Linking Anticorruption to Human Rights Accountability

Corruption and human rights are closely related. Vulnerable groups–including the poor, minorities, women, children, and people with disabilities–are most likely to suffer the effects of corruption, which can compromise their access to basic services, health, and education. Anticorruption efforts can threaten human rights—whistleblowers, journalists, and other anticorruption defenders are often at risk of retaliation in the form of imprisonment, threats, violence, or death.  And countries where corruption is pervasive consistently demonstrate less commitment to the protection of human rights: Of the 15 countries with the lowest scores on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index of 2013, seven have the worst Freedom House ratings for political rights and civil liberties.

The significant overlap between the most corrupt countries and countries with the worst political and civil rights suggests that there should be more integration between the human rights and anticorruption agenda. In an earlier post, I suggested that activists frustrated by the Kiobel decision’s restrictions on the use of the U.S. Alien Tort Statute against corporations that abet human rights violations could make use of the more expansive jurisdictional provisions of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, at least when corporate collaboration in human rights abuses is tainted by bribery. But there are other, more ambitious ways to incorporate human rights concerns into international anticorruption law.

For example, human rights activists could push for amendments to Article 35 of UNCAC and Article 5 of the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention. The former discusses how State Parties should take measures to ensure entities or persons who suffer damage from corruption can initiate legal proceedings and the latter discusses anticorruption investigation and prosecution.  Both articles could be expanded to obligate states to reasonably identify those who suffered human rights violations as a result of corruption and take measures to compensate those individuals. Such an amendment could spare State Parties from a floodgate of litigation while still ensuring that human rights violations are addressed.

The anticorruption agenda could likewise be integrated in human rights treaties. Some have declared that large-scale corruption should be designated as a crime against humanity. However, I am doubtful that is the best way to address the issue. Labeling corruption as a crime against humanity on par with rape, torture, and murder risks diluting the seriousness of these human rights violations. A better approach would be to acknowledge corruption as a cause of human rights violations in human rights treaties such as International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and to mandate that the realization of these rights requires anticorruption efforts.

One other strategic consideration may be worth considering here: Certain countries–particularly the the United States–seem to have a stronger international commitment to anticorruption than human rights accountability. The United States was the driving force behind the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention, has outpaced the U.S. for outpacing other OECD parties in terms of its anticorruption enforcement, and is also a signatory of UN Convention Against Corruption and the Inter-American Convention Against Corruption. In contrast, the U.S.’s treaty ratification record for international human rights is less favorable, and the U.S. has not ratified a number of significant human rights conventions.  For whatever reason, at the moment the anticorruption agenda seems to have more traction in the U.S. than the (traditional) human rights agenda.  In light of that fact, human rights advocates may find it strategically useful — at least in some contexts — to frame the protection of human rights as part of the broader international anticorruption agenda.

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