This past April, the U.S. Department of State denied an entry visa to the Vice President of Afghanistan, Abdul Rashid Dostrum, a notorious warlord and a key regional leader in the broad kleptocratic network of corruption that dominates Afghanistan. (In response, and seeking to avoid an embarrassing public spectacle, the Afghan government cancelled the trip, citing ostensible “security” issues at home.) This is but one recent example of an emerging element of anticorruption strategy: the denial of visas to corrupt officials (along with those who have abused human rights). This strategy is attractive for officials like Dostrum, who are beyond the jurisdiction of U.S. and other nations’ anticorruption statutes. This sort of diplomatic tool is a subtle way of controlling and manipulating working relationships with corrupt officials, and can act as both a sanction and disincentive for corrupt behavior. High-level, publicized meetings and trips to Western countries enhance the status of leaders in developing countries. More broadly, visas for officials’ family members to study in the West are also highly prized in the developing world. Restricting these visas can thus be an effective way of deterring corrupt behavior in lieu of actual jurisdictional authority.
Using visa denials as a tool to fight corruption has received a fair amount of attention in recent years among NGOs and international groups like the G20 (see here, here and here), with discussion focusing on two broad concerns: fairness and effectiveness. In my view the fairness concern—the idea that denying an entry visa absent a formal conviction or fair trial violates basic notions of due process–is overblown. A ban on travel does not implicate the same due process concerns that would arise with, for example, freezing of assets held in a foreign country. States have broad discretion in immigration matters, and no foreign citizen has a pre-existing “right” to enter any country at will. And the due process concerns in the visa denial context could be assuaged fairly easily, for example by establishing procedures by which those denied visas are informed of reasons and offered the possibility to respond.
The more complicated issue is whether visa denials can be made more effective in deterring corrupt behavior. Here, the effectiveness of this promising tool depends on improvements in two areas: clarity and coordination.