The Sixth Conference of States Parties (CoSP) to the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) is being held this week, in St. Petersburg, Russia. From a quick glance at the provisional agenda, it looks like some of the topics that delegates will focus on include prevention, asset recovery, and international cooperation, as well as broader issues related to UNCAC implementation. (For more information, see here.) I don’t really have much to say about the substance of the meetings, not least because they’re still in progress, and much of the actual discussion is taking place behind closed doors. Rather, I wanted to take this opportunity to say in public what I know a lot of people have been mumbling and/or grumbling about in private: There’s something a bit ironic, maybe even perverse, about holding the UNCAC CoSP meeting in Russia, of all places. It seems about as appropriate is it might be to hold a CoSP for the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in Saudi Arabia.
But is it really a problem? After all, every country in the world struggles with corruption. And one of the great virtues of UNCAC, despite all its shortcomings, is that it conveys a powerful symbolic message that corruption is a global problem that unites developed and developing countries; insisting on holding UNCAC CoSP meetings only in places like Denmark and Sweden might create unnecessary tensions and undermine that united front. (Perhaps this is part of the reason that the past UNCAC CoSP meetings have been held in Jordan, Indonesia, Qatar, Morocco, Panama, and now Russia – none of them exactly poster children for clean government.) Moreover, perhaps holding an event like the UNCAC CoSP in a location where corruption is an especially serious problem can actually be a good thing, by drawing attention to the host country’s own failures to deal with the problem adequately. (Indeed, holding the International Anti-Corruption Conference in Malaysia may have had some beneficial effects along these lines.)
Still, something just doesn’t sit right with me about this particular location decision. (I’ve heard unconfirmed rumors that the Russian government originally wanted to hold the CoSP in Sochi, site of the 2014 Corruption Olympics, which would have been even worse—and which calls to mind Tom Leher’s quip about how satire became obsolete the day they gave Henry Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize.) Maybe the source of my discomfort is the fact Russia is not simply a country where corruption is a serious, systemic problem—rather, the Russian government seems to be borderline kleptocratic, and to be actively working to subvert institutions and organizations that could help rein in corruption, and going out of its way to punish activists who are bringing corruption problems in the country to light. Indeed, it’s hard to believe the Russian government actually takes its obligations under UNCAC all that seriously, which makes its hosting of the event seem more like a PR/propaganda exercise than anything else. (Other unconfirmed rumors have it that Russia not only offered to host this CoSP, but in fact insisted on doing so, to the point of obstructing meaningful discussion of any other agenda items at the last CoSP meeting until Russia’s request to host the next CoSP had been accepted. Again, this is an unconfirmed rumor. But it has the ring of plausibility—and would be consistent with the idea that the Russian government views hosting this meeting as good PR.) I’m very much hoping that, as with the Sochi Olympics, the gambit will backfire, and the decision to hold the CoSP in Russia will be an opportunity for greater international attention to the Russian government’s egregious failures in this area.
And what about going forward? Where should the next UNCAC CoSP be held? Should the political symbolism of the location decision matter at all? In the grand scheme of things, I guess it’s not that important. But still, maybe trying to identify a country that, though struggling with corruption, seems to be moving in a positive direction might send a better message.