This past April, the U.S. Department of State denied an entry visa to the Vice President of Afghanistan, Abdul Rashid Dostrum, a notorious warlord and a key regional leader in the broad kleptocratic network of corruption that dominates Afghanistan. (In response, and seeking to avoid an embarrassing public spectacle, the Afghan government cancelled the trip, citing ostensible “security” issues at home.) This is but one recent example of an emerging element of anticorruption strategy: the denial of visas to corrupt officials (along with those who have abused human rights). This strategy is attractive for officials like Dostrum, who are beyond the jurisdiction of U.S. and other nations’ anticorruption statutes. This sort of diplomatic tool is a subtle way of controlling and manipulating working relationships with corrupt officials, and can act as both a sanction and disincentive for corrupt behavior. High-level, publicized meetings and trips to Western countries enhance the status of leaders in developing countries. More broadly, visas for officials’ family members to study in the West are also highly prized in the developing world. Restricting these visas can thus be an effective way of deterring corrupt behavior in lieu of actual jurisdictional authority.
Using visa denials as a tool to fight corruption has received a fair amount of attention in recent years among NGOs and international groups like the G20 (see here, here and here), with discussion focusing on two broad concerns: fairness and effectiveness. In my view the fairness concern—the idea that denying an entry visa absent a formal conviction or fair trial violates basic notions of due process–is overblown. A ban on travel does not implicate the same due process concerns that would arise with, for example, freezing of assets held in a foreign country. States have broad discretion in immigration matters, and no foreign citizen has a pre-existing “right” to enter any country at will. And the due process concerns in the visa denial context could be assuaged fairly easily, for example by establishing procedures by which those denied visas are informed of reasons and offered the possibility to respond.
The more complicated issue is whether visa denials can be made more effective in deterring corrupt behavior. Here, the effectiveness of this promising tool depends on improvements in two areas: clarity and coordination.
- Clarity: Visa denial regimes should abide by objective, public criteria for what behavior constitutes sufficient grounds for denying a visa. Commentators on visa denials have long called for this change—for example, this Transparency International paper advocates for enumerated criteria so that “bans are based on substantiated evidence and due process, rather than arbitrary or political decisions.” Ad hoc denials simply cannot deter behavior to the same extent as publicized, clear bars on that behavior. Plausible criteria include establishing a list of alleged corruption offences sufficient to merit denial of entry, a common standard of proof for qualifying offenses (i.e. whether a conviction in the country of origin is required, or what level of evidence is sufficient absent such a conviction), and a clear policy on applicability of visa denials to close family members of corrupt government officials. While critics might argue that enumerated criteria would preclude the flexibility that would allow countries to incorporate a visa denial regime into a broader anti-corruption strategy, that concern is secondary to the deterrent effect of a visa denial regime. Moreover, clear, objective criteria would enable civil society groups to monitor and contribute to an effective regime. NGOs could work to develop informal criteria that could enhance effectiveness of a visa denial system, demand information about implementation of denial of entry programs to ensure their effectiveness and prevent their abuse, or publicize lapses in the regime, such as when corrupt officials are issued visas.
- Communication: Several organizations have called for greater cooperation among Western nations in coordinating a visa denial regime. For example, in 2014, the NGO Civil 20 proposed that the G20 implement a uniform set of criteria denial of entry across all G20 jurisdictions to reduce the likelihood that enforcement is uneven across nations. A G20 Research Group report found in 2013 that despite pledging to develop frameworks for cooperation in creating principles for visa denials at the 2012 G20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, the level of compliance with this commitment was the lowest of all commitments analyzed. In fact, none of the G20 members had fully complied with the stated goals, and only six showed even partial compliance. However, this focus on cooperation and uniformity is in my view misguided. Though objective criteria would help make a regime more effective in deterring corrupt behavior, establishing uniformity across various countries is impracticable, and likely would not have any increased positive effects. While the G20 may seem like a suitable forum for such an arrangement, there is clearly a wide array of interests at stake across countries as diverse as China, the United States, and South Africa. Moreover, it is unlikely that a government official would be deterred from corrupt behavior by a cohesive set of visa denial criteria in 20 countries as opposed to solely from a country like the United States. On the other hand, where an international network like the G20 would be useful is through increased communication and information sharing. Communication through an international organization like Interpol would enable timely information sharing about corrupt public officials, and countries could provide opportunities for the public to provide information to such a channel about allegedly corrupt visa applicants.
While a visa denial regime is certainly not the strongest measure for fighting corruption, and one with only limited utility, it can act as a strong deterrent for corrupt behavior. While calls for a uniform regime across G20 nations are misguided, establishing clear, objective criteria for the denial of visas, and enabling civil society to monitor such a system would be a step towards a more effective policy.