When corruption is deeply entrenched, it is very difficult to dislodge through criminal prosecution and similar law enforcement efforts. In systems that create very strong incentives to behave corruptly—those where powerful social norms favor graft over honesty—one can expect widespread resistance to attempts at stepped-up enforcement of anticorruption rules, given the number of people who might rationally fear being implicated in wrongdoing. Moreover, given the reluctance of participants in systemically corrupt regimes to disclose their illicit conduct and improper relationships, it is very hard to understand how the corrupt systems operate, who the most culpable perpetrators are, and how such systems can be more effectively dismantled.
A promising response to these problems might be drawn from the experience of addressing widespread human rights violations in moments of transition: truth commissions. While it would obviously be very difficult to set up such a commission during normal times, when the opportunity arises—say, after a regime change, or a significant political turnover sparked by popular protests against corruption—a country could set up an independent body—a corruption truth commission—to manage a process by which amnesty would be offered to those who had engaged in unlawful corrupt acts, in exchange for a full and truthful accounting of the corrupt conduct that they had perpetrated or witnessed.
This approach has several practical benefits. It creates a permanent record of the abuse of power, builds an evidence base to go after those perpetrators who either reject the offer of amnesty or are too high-level to be eligible, and can help countries recover ill-gotten assets. By exposing the workings of corrupt networks, corruption truth commissions would also help us better understand how to identify and counter corrupt networks before they can take root.
While the appropriate design of such a body would obviously depend on the specific circumstances of each individual country, five general principles are broadly applicable:Continue reading