Guest Post: Timor-Leste Needs a New National Anticorruption Strategy

Jonas Guterres, who previously served as an Advisor to the Anti-Corruption Commission of Timor-Leste, contributes today’s guest post:

Corruption in Timor-Leste is a chronic disease that can infiltrate almost all aspects of human life and all sectors of society. A number of mechanisms have been put in place within the nation’s legal framework since its restoration of independence, culminating in the establishment of the Anti-Corruption Commission (the Comissão Anti-Corrupção, or CAC) in 2010. However, the prevalence of corruption remains high. There are a number of factors which explain why the anticorruption efforts to date remain far from ideal.

  • First, in part because of the background of traditional norms in the country, and the historical legacy left by past colonizers, the overall legal framework remains weak. Necessary pieces of legislation such as the anticorruption law still have shortcomings. A witness protection law, and an asset and wealth disclosure law, are in place but have not been properly enforced. To be effective, legislation needs to be underpinned by political will in support of anticorruption efforts, rather than empty rhetoric and speeches during formal ceremonies.
  • Second, in addition to the weak legal framework, the country’s chief anticorruption enforcement institutions—the CAC and the Prosecutor’s Office—face myriad challenges, including a lack of competent human resources, lack of adequate financial support, lack of expertise in handling complex corruption cases, and interference by politicians. Moreover, effective enforcement demands a close working relationship between investigators and prosecutors, but unfortunately there have been too many cases where cooperation between the CAC and the Prosecutor’s Office has not been effective, sometimes due to the personal egos of the leadership. And the two institutions tend to blame each other for failed enforcement efforts, with investigators blaming prosecutors for refusing to pursue solid cases, and prosecutors pointing the finger at investigators for bringing cases what are weak and unsupported by legally admissible evidence. Sometimes these differences of opinion have escalated into public disputes between the leadership at the CAC and the Prosecutor’s Office, which tends to poison relationships between working level staff in the two agencies.
  • Third, the enforcement of anticorruption legislation requires an efficient, predictable, and accountable judiciary. Unfortunately, the courts in Timor-Leste are marred by the lack of human resources, language barriers, limited selection of judges of special expertise and capacity to understand complex cases, shortcomings of infrastructure, and lack of legal awareness. The courts need better administration and caseflow management, adequate remuneration, proper and transparent criteria for selection and removal of judges (in order to safeguard their independence), and continuous training.
  • Fourth, and perhaps most important, fighting corruption must not only be the task of institutions such as the CAC, the Prosecutor’s Office, and the courts, but must also be accepted as the responsibility of all citizens. Fighting corruption must go beyond the halls of justice and become a new norm in society. Unfortunately, in Timor-Leste, societal attitudes tend to perpetuate corruption. Citizens are reluctant to report corruption because they fear lack of results, as well as retaliation. Moreover, there is a tendency for members of the public to compromise with, or become compromised by, petty corruption, while at the same time cursing high-level corruption that involves politicians and high public officers. Many people seem to be complacent rather than angry about corruption and administrative malpractice, although they are aware of the exertions needed to get access to day-to-day public services, quality education, health care, and so on. They tend to go on with the status quo, hoping that it will get better. To counter the lax attitude of society, fighting corruption must become a “new culture,” in which citizens are eager to file a complaint if they witness corruption, refuse to give money or bribes to officers for services, and have the courage to stand up for their rights. Timor-Leste needs to integrate anticorruption awareness in the educational curriculum, as well as anticorruption campaigns targeting village leaders, youth groups, women’s organizations, civil society organizations, and the media. And the law needs to provide mechanisms strong enough to encourage people to come forward and denounce corrupt acts voluntarily. Only by taking the fight against corruption outside the legal corridors, only when anticorruption measures become a “new culture,” and only when all elements of society actively denounce corrupt acts, will we start to see explicit success in combating corruption in Timor-Leste.

The experiences and lessons learned from other countries, and particularly from institutions such as the Hong Kong Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) and the Singapore Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB), suggest that success in preventing and combating corruption depends on good collaborative efforts and coordinated actions among state institutions (including anticorruption bodies), the private sector, civil society, the media and the citizenry as a whole, as well as on respecting the functions and responsibilities of each state institution. Therefore, implementing reforms in each of the four areas listed above should be done as part of a coordinated “National Anti-Corruption Strategy.” Such a strategy is one of the key tools that can help to focus national anticorruption efforts in different sectors and institutions, including the private sector and civil society.  A national strategy can generate collective action and a coordinated approach, along with clear, accountable performance targets. To achieve the “zero tolerance” culture envisioned in the CAC Strategic Plan 2010-2020, it is now timely, appropriate, and strategic for the Government and Parliament to strengthen anticorruption measures and mechanisms, including through a new National Anti-Corruption Strategy.

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