Last month, the UN General Assembly held its first-ever Special Session focused specifically on the fight against corruption. In addition to the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) itself, various governments and civil society organizations arranged various side events, held in parallel with the main UNGASS meeting, to allow activists, policymakers, and researchers to share their expertise. Today’s guest post, contributed by Michaella Baker, a JD-MBA student at Northwestern University (working in collaboration with Northwestern Law Professor Juliet Sorensen), summarizes the themes and principal contributions of three of these side events.
- Corruption in the era of COVID-19: An impediment to global health, human rights, and development
Northwestern University’s Center for International Human Rights, together with the United States government, hosted a side event to consider how to prevent corruption in critical areas of the COVID-19 response. As panelist Gavin Hayman, the Executive Director of the Open Contracting Partnership, observed, while the pandemic response has highlighted issues surrounding corruption in the procurement of medical supplies, this is not a new problem. For years, the World Health Organization (WHO) has tried to call attention to the fact that 10% of the medicines provided in low- and middle-income countries are fake or substandard. And while low- and middle-income countries may be more vulnerable, the problem is everywhere. Substandard and falsified medical products from all main therapeutic categories have been reported to WHO and lead to loss of confidence in medicines, healthcare providers, and health systems.
Panelist Mary Beth Goodman, a Senior Advisor on the Global COVID-19 Response at the US Department of State, offered five best practices countries can employ to respond to corruption in medical procurement, particularly in the context of an emergency response: (1) establish an oversight body to monitor pandemic spending, building on pre-existing governmental bodies with more expertise; (2) develop a centralized website that tracks all COVID-19-related spending; (3) hire dedicated investigators and prosecutors; (4) release national bi-monthly reports with information about the pandemic; and (5) offer broad-based public access to information.
While Ms. Goodman’s recommendations might represent best practices for affluent countries like the US, other panelists point out that it may be unrealistic to expect such a comprehensive approach to be viable in low- and middle-income countries, which often have weaker and more unstable regulatory systems. According to panelist Carlos Guerrero Orozco, a Mexican lawyer who co-founded a civil society group called Derechos Humanos y Litigo Estratégico Mexicano, in such contexts civil society must play a greater role to curtail corruption in the supply chain. However, this can only work if civil society can design practical campaigns to identify the corruption victims and strengthen the relationship between human rights and corruption. And panelist Dr. Jude Nwokike, who directs the Promoting the Quality of Medicines Program (PQM+) Program, pointed out that rich and poor countries alike may be able to draw on frameworks like the WHO’s Good Governance for Medicines Initiative, which contains indicators and offers approaches to assess vulnerability to corruption.
- Synergizing SDG 16.10 and UNCAC to fight corruption
The UK-based NGO called ARTICLE 19 held a side event entitled “Synergizing SDG 16.10 and UNCAC To Fight Corruption,” to call attention to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16.10, which ensures public access to information. Access to information is crucial to anticorruption efforts, as several of the panelists at this event emphasized. It also serves other goals, such as building trust in government and empowering citizens. But access to information has come under increasing threat, in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Governments worldwide have used COVID-19 as an excuse to stifle information concerning public health; indeed, at least 91 of 192 countries saw restrictions on the news media in the COVID-19 response.
More broadly, the panelists at this event emphasized the increasing threat to independent journalism. Panelist Guilherme Canela de Souza Godoi, for example, emphasized how the reporting on the Panama Papers triggered a transnational effort to discredit journalists. Journalists covering sensitive issues, including corruption and the COVID-19 response, have been arrested and targeted with violence, harassment, intimidation, and lawsuit. The panel also highlighted a growing concern with so-called “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” or “SLAPP suits,” which are a legal bullying tactic meant to harass and silence critics under the guise of legitimate civil lawsuits. According to a recent study commissioned by the European Commission, SLAPP suits are increasing across the EU, creating a hostile environment for journalists, human rights defenders, and various NGOs.
The panelists offered strategies to ensure governments worldwide improve access to information, thereby advancing the fight against corruption. Helen Darbishire, Executive Director of Access to Information Europe, argued that governments need to ensure that “data relevant to the SDGs are prioritized and put into the public demand.” Jaco De Toit, the Chief of UNESCO’s Universal Access to Information Section, underscored the importance of legal frameworks in each country to provide and protect the right to access to information. Other panelists emphasized the role that civil society can play. For example, Stephanie Muchai noted that the Good Law Project filed a case against the UK government for improperly and unlawfully awarding contracts worth over 700 million pounds. Going forward, civil society should have training in monitoring and documenting financial and other types of fraud.
- Gender equality and anticorruption – two themes, one goal
Women are more exposed to corruption than men and are disproportionately affected by its consequences in sectors like education, health, agriculture, and public services. Targeting gender can both equalize the playing field between men and women and reduce the detrimental impact of corruption. The UNGASS Political Declaration recognized this, explicitly mentioning the importance of women’s empowerment and gender equality in the fight against corruption. Building on this important milestone, Sweden and Germany hosted a side event entitled “Gender Equality and Anticorruption – Two Themes, One Goal.”
Panelist Jennifer Sarvary Bradford, an expert with UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), noted that most anticorruption measures typically benefit men, while women are left out of the conversation. However, she called attention to a recent UNODC report “The Time is Now – Addressing the Gender Dimensions of Corruption,” which seeks to reddress this imbalance by providing a framework for implementing anticorruption policies with gender considerations in public and private sectors.
Although the report undoubtedly represents a step forward, the difficulty in gathering sex-disaggregated anticorruption data should not be understated. Dr. Mary Kimari, a consulting specialist at the World Bank from the Office of the Ombudsman in Kenya, detailed the complexity of creating a gender-responsive corruption reporting system. Not only is corruption generally hard to detect, but women are particularly unlikely to report corruption due to lack of protection, fear of reprisals, and issues concerning confidentiality.
These concerns about confidentiality relate to another gendered aspect of the corruption problem: women are often victimized by forms of corruption that involve the extortion of sexual favors by those in power. This problem of so-called “sextortion” was highlighted by other panelists, including Carin Jämtin, Director-General of the Swedish International Development Agency, and Kartin Wenzel, the former Minister of Health of Sweden.
The panelists also discussed some of the tangible steps countries can take to address this issue. First, policymakers need targeted anticorruption interventions aimed toward strengthening women and other under-represented groups. Second, while efforts to strengthen women’s roles and ensure effective and gender-inclusive anticorruption policies must occur in all sectors, the education sector is especially important. As the UNODC report referenced above states, “All forms of education…remain the master key to unlock solutions that can advance both the fight against corruption and gender equality.”