In my last post I discussed Transparency International’s proposal for an “ASEAN Integrity Community” (AIC) to promote and harmonize effective anticorruption policies in the Southeast Asian region. The proposed AIC would be part of the formal ASEAN framework but would not impose additional legal obligations on member states. This got me thinking a bit more about whether it would be a good idea to push for a more robust international anticorruption convention, either in ASEAN or in the Asia-Pacific region more generally. (I’m not alone in having at least entertained this idea: the Thai National Anti-Corruption Commission has apparently been developing, and occasionally floating, a proposal for an ASEAN Anti-Corruption Convention.) After all, in addition to the two main global anticorruption conventions—the UN Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) and the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention—there are also a number of regional anticorruption conventions, including the Inter-American Convention against Corruption, the African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption, the League of Arab States Anti-Corruption Convention, the Council of Europe’s Civil and Criminal Law Conventions on Corruption, and the European Union’s Convention against Corruption involving Officials. Indeed, the Asia-Pacific region is one of the few regions in the world (along with South Asia, Central Asia, and a handful of others) that lacks a regional anticorruption convention of some kind. Is there a case for creating such a regional instrument in the Asia-Pacific (or, more narrowly, in ASEAN)?
I think, upon further reflection and discussions with people who have much more expertise than I do, that the answer is probably no. But nevertheless I thought it would be worth at least floating the idea, if only to stimulate further discussions.
As a starting point, what might be the best arguments in favor of a regional convention? Maybe another way to ask that question is to ask, given that we already have UNCAC (and the OECD Convention, though that one has both narrower membership and a narrower focus), what’s the point of regional anticorruption conventions? After all, most of the existing regional conventions predate UNCAC. Now that we have a global instrument, is there any reason for creating more regional conventions (or, frankly, preserving those we already have, other than out of inertia)?
I think the best case for regional anticorruption conventions would have to run as follows: UNCAC, as a global instrument, had to make certain compromises to facilitate broad participation, including some watering down of both the Convention’s substantive commitments and its peer review mechanism. Also, the near-global participation in UNCAC means that peer reviews will be relatively infrequent. A regional convention could potentially supplement UNCAC by imposing on the countries within the regional grouping more stringent and specific substantive commitments, and/or requiring them to undergo more frequent and rigorous reviews by their regional peers within the convention. The idea would be that UNCAC sets a global “floor”, but the regional conventions allow smaller groups of states to agree to a higher standard. The regional nature of such conventions might also enable the substantive commitments to be better tailored to the particular circumstances and challenges of the countries in that region. And the fact that the peer review assessments would be conducted by regional neighbors might make countries more willing to take on new commitments, and submit to such reviews, than would be the case if the evaluators were from geographically (and culturally and politically) distant nations.
A possible model for something like this in the Asia-Pacific region might be the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO), which oversees compliance with the Council of Europe’s Criminal and Civil Law Conventions on Corruption. GRECO’s primary function is to monitor and evaluate member states’ compliance with these obligations, and many experts view GRECO’s evaluation methods – which include self-assessments, on-site country visits, and meetings with senior officials, as well as the option to publicize non-compliance to national or intergovernmental authorities and the media – as quite effective. Perhaps one could envision a mechanism similar to GRECO within the Asia-Pacific, or a smaller group like ASEAN, that would focus on compliance with UNCAC (or perhaps additional commitments contained in a regional convention).
So I think the case for the creation of a regional anticorruption convention within the Asia-Pacific (or perhaps a smaller grouping, such as ASEAN) has some merit. Nonetheless, I think I’ve been persuaded that this isn’t really an idea worth pursuing, for a few reasons.
- First, there’s the simple problem of cost and “convention overload” (combined with “peer review fatigue”). Now that we have UNCAC, it’s not clear whether there’s sufficient added-value from another convention to justify the costs of a new convention. And pushing for a regional anticorruption convention would consume time, resources, and political capital that might be better expended on other anticorruption activities. So, while the possibility of creating a more robust regional anticorruption convention is intriguing, it may well not be worth the effort.
- Second, although the hope is that a regional convention would get countries to go above and beyond the UNCAC “floor”, there’s the worry that it could have the opposite effect: In the process of negotiating a regional agreement, and responding to the various political pressures to “respect sovereignty” and “respect local values” and so forth, the final product could actually contain phrasing that is weaker/softer than what one sees in UNCAC. Although as a matter of law the regional agreement can’t relax pre-existing UNCAC obligations, as a practical matter several experts I’ve spoken with have privately expressed the concern—drawing on the example of regional human rights agreements—that a regional “agreement” could actually prove counterproductive. Instead, the argument runs, the focus both within the region and outside should be on pressing for compliance with global norms, not on establishing alternative regional norms, even if the latter are intended as a supplement or complement to the global norms.
These two objections lead me to the tentative conclusion that a new regional anticorruption convention in ASEAN or the Asia-Pacific (or elsewhere) is probably not worth pursuing. But it does seem like it’s worth more serious additional discussion, along with TI’s proposed AIC and related proposals to strengthen anticorruption policy and coordination and the regional level.