The Problem With Framing Freedom From Corruption as a Human Right

It is widely recognized that corruption and human rights violations are linked. Corruption, after all, facilitates the violation of human rights–not only civil and political rights, but social and economic rights as well. (This blog has previously discussed those linkages here and here.) Some scholars and activists have gone further, arguing that freedom from official corruption is itself a human right. A useful recent example is a Brookings Paper by attorney Matthew Murray and Professor (and occasional GAB guest contributor) Andrew Spalding, but they are not alone. Advocates of this position claim that reframing corruption as a human rights violation is needed to instill a greater sense of obligation among national governments and to promote more robust enforcement.

I am skeptical. I do not deny the deep connection between human rights and anticorruption, particularly in developing countries, where access to basic human rights such as food, shelter, water, and education, is often hampered by rampant corruption. But I do not think that trying to establish “freedom from official corruption” as a human right per se (as opposed to recognizing the ways in which corruption contributes to human rights violations and other egregious social harms) is a productive use of time and energy.

Let me first summarize what I take to be the core arguments in favor of establishing freedom from corruption as a human right, and then explain why I respectfully disagree. Continue reading

Behind the Scenes at GAB [Warning: Self-Indulgent and Self-Congratulatory]

As the warning in the post title indicates, this post is not about a substantive corruption topic, but rather about the Global Anticorruption Blog itself—in particular, the contributors who make the blog possible, and some behind-the-scenes detail on how they develop their posts. As many of our readers may know, close to half of our posts are written by students at Harvard Law School—though referring them to them as students is somewhat misleading, as they all had extensive experience working on issues related to corruption, international development, and related issues before coming to law school. Recently Harvard Law Today (the school’s alumni magazine) did an article on the “anticorruption lab course” in which these students help one another develop, discuss, and refine their posts. I wanted to feature that piece for two reasons (besides shameless self-congratulation). First, today is Harvard Law School’s commencement ceremony, so I thought it would be fitting to use today’s post, and the link to the article, to thank GAB’s student contributors, particularly those who are graduating and moving on to bigger and better things. Second, and perhaps somewhat less parochially, perhaps the Harvard Law Today piece might be of interest to those among our readers, especially those who are university educators, who would like to explore ways to use blog platforms and related forums to help students develop and disseminate their research, on anticorruption and other topics.

We will return to our regularly scheduled series of substantive posts tomorrow.

Raising the Ethics Bar: Namibia’s President Voluntarily Discloses His Income and Assets

Namibia is not the first country that comes to mind when looking for international trend setters.  Roughly the size of Turkey but with a population of only 2.1 million, it has been an independent state for just 25 years.  Yet thanks to a recent initiative by its newly installed President, Hage Geingob, the country could become a leader in the worldwide struggle to combat corruption.  On May 21 the President voluntarily disclosed his income and assets and those of his spouse.  The disclosure is an effort to prod Namibia’s public servants to follow his example, but if President Geingob’s precedent setting move prompts other heads of state, in Africa and elsewhere, to voluntarily disclose details of their personal finances, the country may long be remembered for its contribution to the international movement to curb corruption.

As important as the disclosure are the actions the President took in connection with it, actions other heads of state seeking to emulate him should take as well.  Continue reading

Crowdsourcing Anticorruption–New Essay in The Guardian

Regular GAB contributor Christopher Crawford–who has written a number of insightful posts on the potential and limitations of social media and information technology in combating corruption (see here and here)–has a new essay on The Guardian‘s website entitled, “Crowdsourcing anti-corruption: Like Yelp, but for bad governments.” Chris is too modest to promote this himself, so I’ll do it for him. Anyone interested in this topic should check out the essay by clicking on the prior link.

South Korea’s Corruption Crisis: Sung Wan-jong’s List and Its Fallout

The South Korean political scene is embroiled in a sensational corruption scandal–one that erupted when Sung Wan-jong, a successful businessman whose company was facing financial problems, was found dead (he had hanged himself), holding onto a note containing the names of South Korean officials he had bribed, and the amounts involved. In this note–now known as “Sung Wan-jong’s list”–Mr. Sung wrote that he gave 700 million won (US$639,971) to former Presidential Chief of Staff Huh Tae-yeol, 300 million won (US$274,273) to Incheon Mayor Yoo Jeong-bok, 100 million won (US$91,424) to South Gyeongsang Province Governor Hong Joon-pyo, and 200 million won (US$182,849) to Busan Mayor Suh Byung-soo. Moreover, shortly before he committed suicide, Mr. Sung gave an interview in which he claimed to have passed on bribes of 30 million Korean Won ($27,390) to Prime Minister Lee Wan Koo and 200 million Won ($182,600) to Hong Moon Jong. Since then, the press has consistently followed up with updates and new evidence related to the bribery rising to the surface.

All eight of the figures Mr. Sung accused of accepting bribes have denied the allegations. Investigations are currently still in process. (Reports indicate that progress has been made on gathering necessary evidence to indict Governor Hong Joon-pyo for violating the political funds act. The next target in line is likely to be former Prime Minister Lee Wan Koo, who (perhaps ironically) had led the fight against corruption upon his appointment as Prime Minister just a few months ago.) Still, the accusations are deeply troubling, given that the accused figures are powerful leaders in domestic politics, and Mr. Sung’s list, if it proves accurate, could be evidence of an entirely contaminated political system that could potentially reach the top of the pyramid in South Korean politics. Moreover, the accusations, if corroborated, could also potentially shatter the legitimacy of the 2012 presidential election, particularly given that Mr. Sung alleges that the bribes he paid to Mr. Hong were to be spent for President Park Geun Hye’s presidential election campaign.

Of course, we must be careful not to leap to conclusions—and as a legal matter, these officials are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Nonetheless, given the seriousness and sensational nature of the accusations, and the threat they pose to the legitimacy of the entire South Korean political system, I would advocate two unusual measures in connection with the investigation and potential prosecution of these cases (and similar cases that might arise in the future): Continue reading

Why Bob McDonnell’s Bribery Conviction Should Be Affirmed

One of the most high-profile public corruption cases in the United States in the last couple of years (and alas, there’s some competition for that honor) is that of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell—a case that both Rick and Jordan have written insightfully about before. Governor McDonnell was convicted of violating federal anticorruption laws by accepting cash, loans, and lavish gifts from a local businessman, Jonnie Williams, in exchange for helping Mr. Williams secure research studies of his dietary supplement product at state institutions. Governor McDonnell assisted Mr. Williams’ efforts by arranging meetings, recommending that other state officials meet with Mr. Williams about his product (using language indicating that Governor McDonnell supported and encouraged use of the product), and encouraging state officials to arrange for the research studies sought by Mr. Williams.

Governor McDonnell appealed his conviction, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit heard oral arguments in his appeal last week. (I can’t find a written transcript online yet, but you can listen to an audio recording of the argument here.) The governor’s primary argument on appeal is that he did not violate the relevant federal statutes because he did not perform any “official acts” on behalf of Mr. Williams. Interestingly, Governor McDonnell’s appeal has attracted support from a broad range of criminal law experts, including my Harvard Law School colleagues Professor (and retired Judge) Nancy Gertner and Professor Charles Ogletree. Judge Gertner and Professor Ogletree, along with Virginia Law School Professor John Jeffries, filed an amicus brief contending, in essence: (1) the things that Mr. Williams got from Governor McDonnell were not specific government decisions, but rather “access and ingratiation,” which do not count as “official acts,” and which the Supreme Court has said are not corrupt; (2) the broader definition of “official acts” accepted by the trial court (and reflected in its jury instructions) would render the anti-bribery statutes at issue so broad and vague as to violate constitutional Due Process rights.

Judge Gertner, Professor Ogletree, and Professor Jeffries are among the most distinguished criminal law experts in the United States. They have decades of experience practicing and writing about these issues at the highest levels, whereas I’m a comparative novice in this area, with zero practice experience. If they think one thing, and I think another, it would probably be a smart bet that they’re right and I’m wrong. All that said, I disagree quite strongly with the analysis in their brief.

A blog post is not the place to get into a detailed discussion of the nuances of the law, and this issue may seem rather parochial, especially to our non-American readers. But I actually think that the main problems with the Gertner-Ogletree-Jeffries (GOJ) brief stem from an important conceptual confusion that has implications well beyond this case, and perhaps outside of the U.S. as well. So with full recognition that I’m risking personal embarassment in advancing what might turn out to be a misguided critique, let me explain why I found the GOJ brief (and Governor McDonnell’s lawyer’s arguments along the same lines) unconvincing: Continue reading

Are Anticorruption Parties Doomed to Fail?: Purity, Pragmatism, and Reflections on India’s AAP

In February, I wrote a post about India’s first official anticorruption party, the AAP (Aam Aadmi Party or Common Man Party) and its landslide victory in the Delhi elections that put its leader, Arvind Kejriwal at the helm of the capital’s government. In my earlier post, I was cautiously optimistic about the potential for the AAP’s electoral success to lead to a major breakthrough in the fight against corruption in India. My optimism was based on the palpable excitement among voters, the outpouring of support for Kejriwal, and the AAP’s zealous promises to deliver on its anticorruption platform.

It’s now been a hundred days since the election results were announced. I was hoping, at this point, to do a post reviewing the AAP’s progress in instituting meaningful anticorruption reform and pushing for more fundamental changes in Indian politics. Alas, although the AAP has been getting a lot of attention in its first few months in office, it’s not for the reasons that I (or most of the AAP’s supporters) had hoped: the party has been consumed by infighting, allegations of dirty politics, and a general perception of dysfunction. And while the AAP’s struggles have been particularly dispiriting, it turns out that the general pattern is not that unusual: many anticorruption parties (ACPs), or parties with primary anticorruption platforms, have emerged all around the world in the last decade or two; these parties often gain power through strong rhetoric and popular support, but very quickly stumble, splinter, and often fail to make any real headway. So was my early optimism (and that of millions of Delhi voters) misplaced? Are ACPs, the AAP included, ultimately destined to fail as governing parties? Continue reading