Yet Another Misguided Proposal to Solve Corruption with an International Convention

Entrenched corruption is a frustrating problem, so it’s tempting to invent a new international regime that can take bold action against it without relying on or being encumbered by corrupt or incompetent domestic law enforcement. An article published last week in Foreign Affairs by Alexander Lebedev and Vladislav Inozemtsev, succumbs to that temptation by proposing a “universal anticorruption convention” as a solution to grand, systemic corruption (as distinct from low-level bribery). In broad terms, Lebedev and Vladislav envision a convention that would “clearly define the crime of corruption, codify the principles of good governance,” and “establish a supranational governing body, dedicated investigative and police forces, and a specialized court,” with signatories agreeing to “allow[] international investigators to act freely on [their] territory, and permit[] international prosecution of [their] citizens for corruption crimes.”

The article is short on details about these proposed institutions; the bulk of the article is devoted instead to the proposed convention’s enforcement mechanism. And there the proposal is quite radical: Signatories would be required to “radically curb their financial ties” with non-members, to “identify all assets controlled on their territories by the subjects of nonmember states (both individuals and companies)”–regardless of whether the assets are the proceeds of corruption–and, by an agreed deadline, to “monetize[e] and repatriate[e]” all of these assets. Under the convention, citizens of non-member states could not “open[] accounts in member countries’ banks, establish[] companies on their territories, [or] acquir[e] local real estate.” And member states would also be required to bar immigration from non-member states (at least of “young, independent people”), because the “freedom to leave” a corrupt state reduces the pressure to change from within.

I agree with Lebedev and Inozemtsev that grand corruption is a serious problem, and I commend them on their willingness to explore radical new solutions. But their proposal is absurd. I can’t imagine any state signing on to it, and I don’t think any state should. Their proposal would not only be ineffective. Its implementation would be catastrophic. 

There are significant problems with the proposal. (Many of these criticisms echo my earlier criticisms of Lebedev’s prior calls for an international anticorruption police force, as well as Matthew’s critique of proposals for an international anticorruption court.)

  • The working assumption seems to be that most of the countries with relatively low corruption levels will sign onto the proposed convention. But there’s no reason to believe that, given how intrusive the convention would be. Very few countries will accede to ad hoc investigation by an international agency and to the arrest and detention of their citizens–including their most senior government officials–by an international institution with an as-yet undefined governance structure, for trial before an international court. The United States – which is not a signatory to the Rome Convention (on the International Criminal Court) – almost certainly wouldn’t sign on.
  • Building on the prior point, if even a handful of major economies–particularly the United States–refuse to join the convention, the radical nature of the sanctions makes it extremely unlikely that any other countries would be willing to stay inside it. If Britain signs on and America doesn’t, for instance, Lebedev and Inozemtsev’s proposal would seem to prohibit American investment in the UK–Americans would not be able even to open British bank accounts, or purchase British real estate–unless Britain were also to drop out of the convention. The proposal explicitly relies on concerted action by the 20 countries least affected by corruption, but the authors evince not the slightest awareness of the fact that even a country with relatively little corruption may have (very legitimate) reasons not to sign onto such a convention that mandates acceptance of such intrusive international interference and such costly punitive measures against outsiders.
  • Even if the proposal were somehow to attract participation by most of the relatively-less-corrupt large economies, many developing countries would likely stay out, despite the harsh sanctions. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, that China, India, Brazil, Russia, or South Africa would join, let alone Mexico, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, or countless other nations that may be reluctant to permit an international police force to arrest their leaders and other citizens. And if the harsh sanctions are not harsh enough to induce compliance, then their very harshness will end up proving counterproductive: Sanctions of the sort advocated here would cut developing states, and their citizens, off from access to large parts of the world, trapping those states in cycles of poverty and encouraging rent-seeking behavior. Moreover, for developed states to impose such harsh isolation on poor countries for failure to agree to the intrusive terms of the proposed convention would smack of imperialism.
  • In its efforts to make the sanctions as harsh as possible, the proposed convention also does not distinguish between the guilty and the innocent – at points it is expressly indifferent to effects on the latter. Should people from nonmember states be prohibited – in an effort to challenge the alleged crimes of their government (crimes that are established, in the proposal, solely by virtue of the country’s decision not to join the convention) – from participating in the global economy or from free migration? The authors seem not to care; this suffering, they imply, is good because it will lead to more domestic pressure to join the convention.

The proposed anticorruption convention, then, is both unworkable and likely counterproductive. Moreover, one of the many holes in Lebedev and Inozemtsev’s proposal is its failure even to mention existing international efforts to combat corruption and associated problems like money laundering and stolen asset recovery. They never mention the UN Convention Against Corruption; the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention;  the various regional anticorruption agreements; the Financial Action Task Force, the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative, the Egmont Group of Financial Intelligence Units, or any of the many other recent international efforts to address money laundering and asset recovery. There isn’t a hat tip to existing proposals, and there certainly isn’t an argument for why these — more politically tenable and less intrusive — proposals don’t work. Of course, none of the current initiatives goes as far as Lebedev and Inozemtsev’s proposed convention–but there are good reasons for that. And thinking hard about how to improve or build on existing international efforts would likely be much more fruitful than advocating for an unrealistic super-convention developed from scratch.

Likewise ignored in the proposal are recent efforts of citizens–in places as diverse as Egypt and Ukraine–to rise up to take action against grand corruption in their own countries. It is these people–the citizens of developing states beset by systemic corruption–whom Lebedev and Inozemtsev would sacrifice to put pressure on their governments to join an unnecessary and counterproductive convention.

One thought on “Yet Another Misguided Proposal to Solve Corruption with an International Convention

  1. I agree with all of your criticisms, and I would add that Lebedev and Inozemtsev’s suggestion that bribery should be decriminalized to allow countries to focus more resources on fighting high-level corruption is also misguided for several reasons. First, bribery in the provision of social services like education, health care, and welfare harms people in a very fundamental way in their day-to-day lives. I completely disagree with the authors that bribery isn’t that harmful because it simply redistributes wealth within a country – the perpetuation of inequality within a society seems pretty pernicious to me. Second, endemic bribery and high-level corruption are not isolated phenomena – surely one feeds into and sustains the other at least to some extent. Finally, the authors don’t make clear why an international fight against high-level corruption must happen at the complete expense of the fight against bribery at the domestic level. There must be a happy medium where countries can address both problems.

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