Let’s Talk About Monaco

Monaco, the sovereign city-state on France’s Mediterranean coast, is many things. It is the second smallest country in the world, following only Vatican City. It boasts the highest GDP per capita of any country. It is a constitutional monarchy, ruled by the same family for over 700 years. It is known for its opulent casino, expensive real estate, and swaggering F1 drivers.

It is also willfully resistant to the Council of Europe’s anticorruption transparency recommendations – or any transparency measures at all, for that matter.

Perhaps due to its small size, Monaco has flown somewhat under the radar in international corruption monitoring. The city-state doesn’t feature in Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index, and TI’s web page for Monaco is quite blank. Despite being an international tax haven and banking center, Monaco is conspicuously missing from both the World Bank’s Doing Business rankings and the Heritage Foundation’s index of economic freedom. It’s not that Monaco is a corruption-free paradise. In the few lists in which it does appear, Monaco does not score particularly well: In the RAND Corporation’s Business Bribery Risk Assessment, for instance, Monaco ranked 72nd out of 192 jurisdictions. And a number of recent corruption scandals have involved Monaco, either directly or indirectly. Last year, for example, two brothers who ran a Monaco-based consultancy called Unaoil pleaded guilty in the United States to charges involving millions of dollars in bribes paid between 1999 and 2016. Corruption alarms were also raised in July 2019, when Monaco’s justice minister abruptly blocked term renewal for a judge leading a corruption inquiry that involved a Russian billionaire, a former Monaco justice minister, senior Monaco police officials, and others. More recently, in late November 2020, former French president Nicholas Sarkozy went on trial for attempting to bribe a French magistrate with a prestigious job in Monaco.

These incidents have largely come to light because of involvement outside of Monaco: international companies, legal battles that cross borders, and foreign politicians. Monaco itself remains something of a black box. As a 2017 report from the Council of Europe’s Group of States Against Corruption (GRECO) noted, there are no records whatsoever of criminal or disciplinary proceedings related to corruption in Monaco’s parliament. This lack of reported cases, GRECO concluded, is likely due not to an absence of corruption, but to a lack of oversight. As the report noted, Monaco has “few mechanisms to ensure satisfactory transparency of parliamentary work and consultations,” and lacks a “code of conduct that would govern, among other things, the acceptance of gifts and other benefits, the management of conflicts of interest, or relations with lobbies and other third parties seeking to influence parliamentary processes and decisions.” The GRECO report further observed that although judicial proceedings are typically public, there is a carve-out for holding court behind closed doors where public proceedings “might cause a scandal or serious inconvenience.” Cases “concerning the internal operation of courts” are also not public. In practice, there is even less transparency than the official policies would indicate, as most criminal cases are in fact dealt with in France, behind closed doors.

Without a code of conduct against corruption-related activities, with no mechanisms to provide oversight, with any corruption scandals that do occur likely to be tried in secret, and with little international attention on the issue beyond infrequent GRECO reports, Monaco can keep its corruption well hidden. Although occasional scandals might pop up around Monaco, the country makes it difficult to know the nature and extent of its corruption.

The 2017 GRECO report attempted to address this problem with a list of sixteen recommendations. The first six were aimed at members of parliament, and included things like enhanced transparency of the legislative process, a code of conduct, mandatory disclosures of conflicts of interest, and supervision and enforcement mechanisms. Another ten recommendations were aimed at judges and prosecutors, and suggested, among other things, greater transparency in appointment procedures and criteria, and a commitment to holding judicial hearings in public.

GRECO published a compliance report in early 2020, which included the Monaco authorities’ progress report on each of the recommendations (as is required by GRECO’s Rules of Procedure). These responses mainly offered lengthy explanations of why existing procedures were adequate, or assurances that working groups had been assembled to address the problem soon, or vague statements that “they do not rule out the possibility” of implementing the recommendation in the future. A few recommendations—including the recommendation that members of parliament declare their financial interests—were outright rejected. When all was said and done, GRECO found that only one out of the sixteen recommendations, on creating codes of conduct for judges and prosecutors, had been implemented satisfactorily, and that one other recommendation, regarding public hearings, had been “dealt with in a satisfactory manner.” A further six had been partly implemented, but eight recommendations were not implemented at all. GRECO concluded that the level of compliance was “globally unsatisfactory” and directed another progress report by December 31, 2020.

Despite Monaco’s assurances in the compliance report that transparency is in the works, there’s little reason to think that any updates provided by the end of the year will demonstrate real progress. After all, this is not the first time that Monaco has made a show of complying with a GRECO request for additional anticorruption measures without making any meaningful changes. For instance, GRECO’s 2012 report, which focused on criminal laws concerning bribery, noted that Monaco had ratified the 2007 Criminal Law Convention on Corruption but had failed to make any amendments to domestic law as a result. Notwithstanding Monaco’s accession to the treaty, it failed to criminalize trading in influence, and procedural and definitional limits made bribery prosecutions extraordinarily rare.

Part of the explanation for Monaco’s resistance to anticorruption initiatives is an aversion to anything that might taint its glamorous reputation as the “unquestionabl[e] . . . international capital of luxury.” This means that the country prefers to avoid transparency regarding corruption, or even allegations of corruption. As GRECO’s 2008 report put it, Monaco “attaches great importance to the preservation of its image, which may potentially result in cases not reaching the justice system.” More broadly, Monaco seems to have adopted a “see no evil” strategy, maintaining plausible deniability regarding corruption by suppressing cases and reports. Indeed, sometimes the country’s efforts to suppress bad corruption-related PR are more aggressive and sinister. In late October 2020, Jonathan Taylor, a British national, was detained on vacation after Monaco authorities issued an Interpol Red Notice for his arrest. He now battles imminent extradition to Monaco for reasons that remain unclear, but are almost certainly connected to the fact that he was a whistleblower who exposed bribery at SBM Offshore Monaco. If Taylor’s attorneys are correct that this was an act of retaliation, then Monaco is not only reluctant to accept transparency, but is actively moving to intimidate those who would draw attention to the problem.

So, what’s the solution? A good first step would be to shine more of a spotlight on Monaco, calling attention both to its (perceived) corruption and its efforts to suppress information. If Monaco’s resistance to transparency stems from a desire to maintain a pristine image, the best way to push for change is to stop letting the country remain relatively obscure in anticorruption discussions. For starters, Monaco should be included in international corruption and transparency indexes to the extent possible. Monaco’s name should also be invoked more frequently in media and activist discussions of corruption, rather than solely in tourism articles. In short, Monaco’s leaders should conclude that they’re getting worse PR from trying to suppress information about corruption than they’d get from making that information more transparent. Given Monaco’s sensitivity to its public interest, this “naming and shaming” strategy might, in this context, be quite effective at achieving concrete results.

7 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Monaco

  1. Really engaging post on an under-appreciated topic, Zach! I’m curious whether the name-and-shame tactic has been effective in addressing corruption in other jurisdictions. I could imagine that Monaco isn’t the first (and won’t be the last) destination that wants to keep its image on the world stage pristine. Have other leaders responded to increased exposure by increasing anticorruption efforts or cracking down on information leaks?

    • This is a great question. In general, I’m fairly optimistic about the efficacy of naming-and-shaming. For instance, studies have shown positive outcomes from naming-and-shaming for inducing compliance (or at least shifting public opinion in favor of compliance) in analogous international law, such as the Paris Agreement. Similarly, there appears to be at least some academic support for the importance of naming-and-shaming in the realm of anticorruption (and certainly at least support on this blog ). That said, whether or not naming-and-shaming actually works in the anticorruption realm — especially with regards to the CPI — certainly isn’t an area of total consensus, so there’s room for debate (see, for example here at p. 82-84)

  2. Great post Zach — I learned a lot! I wonder if Monaco would get greater corruption attention if more focus was placed on its effect on other, larger nations. It seems that the lack of focus on Monaco is pretty clearly due to its tiny size, but I wonder if a greater emphasis was place on its outside impact on other countries (the Sarkozy case is a great example of this), more focus might be placed on the country.

  3. Hi Zachary, thank you for this fascinating post! Great job really breaking down for us what exactly it is that we aren’t seeing because of this blind spot in our corruption and transparency indexes. I’m really interested in this PR angle. I feel like part of Monaco’s popular attraction is that there is an element of mystery and inaccessibility to it—we have this image in our head of the rich and famous playing poker in an elegant ballroom by the sea. And underlying that is in some way an acknowledgement or even tolerance that corruption or wrongdoing might be going on (think “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” or “Casino Royale”). I wonder how activists can actually flip that narrative from a latent tolerance of this gold-leafed corruption as a part of Monaco’s mystery and allure, to something we actively see as a problem.

    • Well said, Jaylia! I had a similar reaction. There’s an irony to Monaco hiding corruption in order to preserve its status as the “capital of luxury.” If you build an international reputation on the glorification of unimaginable wealth, I would think that questions of corruption would naturally follow. I can’t help but wonder how the Monaco citizenry perceive their government and the reputation their country boasts.

  4. This is a really engaging post Zach! All these maneuvers and tactics seem a little sinister. But I wonder, is there a way one could blow the lid open on this by obtaining credible information from an insider? If so, maybe the main focus should turn to ramping up investigations and creating difficult to resist incentives for insiders willing to provide helpful information.

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