Last June, a group of international scholars and jurists published an article in the French newspaper Le Monde arguing that former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula), who was convicted and imprisoned in a case related to the Lava Jato (Car Wash) anticorruption investigation, did not receive a fair trial, and was the victim of political persecution. A couple months later, a slightly revised version of the article, styled as an open letter to the Brazilian people and Supreme Court, appeared in the Brazilian media, where it made quite a splash. The letter, which was republished on GAB last month, was signed by prominent US scholars, including Susan Rose-Ackerman and Bruce Ackerman, as well as lawyers, professors, and former judges from numerous Latin American and European countries. Echoing accusations leveled by The Intercept and other media outlets, the letter claimed that presiding judge Sergio Moro (now Justice Minister) conducted the proceedings in a partial fashion and directed the prosecution “in contempt for fundamental rules of the Brazilian procedure.” Judge Moro, the letter asserts, “manipulated substantial assistance plea bargaining mechanisms, oriented the prosecution service works, required the substitution of a prosecutor, and directed the prosecution’s public communication strategy.” Furthermore, the letter states that the Judge “wiretapped Lula’s lawyers” and “disobeyed an order from an appeal judge to release Lula”. The letter also contended that there was no material evidence of Lula’s corruption, and that his arrest, prosecution, and conviction were all prompted by the illicit political motive of excluding him from the 2018 presidential elections. In light of all this, the letter asserted that the Brazilian Supreme Court has a duty to release Lula and nullify his conviction.
These accusations are largely baseless, or at least presented in an extremely one-sided fashion that parrots what have become the standard talking points of Lula’s supporters. The Car Wash prosecutors effectively debunked the texts’ main arguments in a rebuttal also published on this blog. (The blog also published a response from Lula’s lawyers that rehashed the same talking points and alluded to as-yet-undisclosed evidence, but that didn’t otherwise counter the prosecutors’ clear documentation of the open letter’s many errors.) What most troubled me about the original article and the open letter was less the fact that these arguments were being advanced—again, by now they’re familiar pro-Lula talking points—but the fact that the texts were signed not only by lawyers, but also by renowned law and political science professors. Lawyers are expected to act as advocates. But scholars are supposed to be more judicious, more scrupulous about evidence, and more circumspect about making bold, aggressive claims on subjects whose factual and legal particularities they don’t fully understand.
Does this mean that international scholars, including those who specialize in corruption generally, should refrain from commenting on how other countries are handling corruption cases, at least when the scholars in question are not experts in those specific countries? I think the answer is presumptively yes. I realize that this might be a controversial statement to make on this blog, which often hosts just such commentaries. But the risks of uninformed declarations, which can be manipulated and deployed by partisan advocates, are too great for international scholars to hold forth confidently on topics about which they know too little.
This does not mean that nobody should ever comment about events in a foreign country. But when discussing, and expressing strong opinions about, specific corruption events in foreign countries, such as the handling of an individual case, it is essential that scholars first research the issue carefully, and consider all the relevant factual and legal aspects of the situation under scrutiny. After all, when an international scholar makes a declaration about a case in a foreign country, that scholar is implying that he or she has formed an expert opinion on the matter as a scholar—that he or she has carefully and judiciously studied the matter and weighed the evidence. It is very difficult for a scholar who does not have specific expertise in the country at issue—knowledge of its historical, political, cultural, social, and legal particularities—to know enough to comment confidently. And it’s even harder, and more risky, when the issues analyzed are extremely politically and legally contentious, as is true in Lula’s case. In this kind of situation, the adoption of a peremptory tone by scholars from other nations, who lack the requisite expertise, is, frankly, reckless.
Now, this is not to say that international scholars with expertise in corruption should never comment on corruption-related issues in foreign countries. As noted above, some foreign scholars specialize in specific countries and may come to have as much understanding as local experts. And even when that’s not true, international scholars of corruption can still make useful contributions when they concentrate on general policy issues, or comparative experience, rather than assessing what ought to be done in individual cases. Foreign scholars can often draw useful comparisons between the problems and challenges in one country and what has happened in other nations, and can also draw on their expertise in the generalizable findings of social scientific research. These sorts of commentary usually do not require deep knowledge of the particular facts or legal features of the country being analyzed. Such commentaries are also less susceptible to strategic deployment by advocates who seek to leverage the reputation of famous international professors for advantage in a political or judicial fight. So, I would have no objection to an article or a blog post written by a foreign corruption expert that discusses, for example, things that Brazil (or some other country) should do to improve its fights against corruption, or risks or challenges that the country might face. But a letter signed by international scholars that tells another country’s Supreme Court that it should reverse a conviction strikes me as arrogant and presumptuous—especially when, as noted above, the letter is riddled with legal and factual errors. And in no case should a scholar sign on to a letter that was drafted by others (lawyers or advocates for a particular party, for instance), unless they have thoroughly researched all of the claims asserted and determined that they are accurate.
In sum, while international corruption scholars may make a significant contribution to our understanding of the challenges that arise when confronting this difficult problem, these scholars also have a great responsibility—their words can have a significant impact, because they are perceived (or presented as) neutral authorities. These scholars need to limit their commentaries to general policy issues and comparative considerations, or if they do turn their attention to specific cases or incidents, they must develop the level of expertise that they would expect of themselves and others in their academic research. Otherwise, these international scholars run the risk of becoming the unwitting pawns in domestic political or legal disputes.