About Matthew Stephenson

Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

Guest Post: Time for UNCAC Mark II?

GAB welcomes back international anticorruption consultant Alan Doig, who contributes the following guest post:

The United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), which came into force in 2005 and has been ratified by 187 countries, is the oldest and most comprehensive Convention solely devoted to the prevention, detection, and investigation of corruption. Yet today UNCAC, for all of its importance, is not serving as an effective blueprint or framework for promoting innovative and effective responses to corruption. There are four main reasons for this:

  • First, perhaps due to UNCAC’s genesis in the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, UNCAC is skewed too heavily toward the criminal justice aspects of anticorruption, as demonstrated by the fact that nearly 80% of UNCAC’s substantive Articles relate to law enforcement, asset recovery, and related issues.
  • Second, UNCAC left too many key terms undefined or underspecified, allowing for significant interpretation (or misinterpretation) of the Articles, and some 40% of UNCAC’s substantive Articles are non-mandatory; these factors tend to undermine the efficacy of the Convention.
  • Third, UNCAC’s review mechanism is too slow and fragmented, and fails to employ a sufficiently holistic framework that assesses performance and progress in implementation and impact.
  • Fourth, and most significant, UNCAC is not amenable to updating. This has meant that issues which were only emerging back in 2005, such as political-party funding or beneficial ownership transparency, only received limited attention. Issues that were once addressed, if at all, through ad hoc references scattered throughout the Convention are assuming more importance. The difficulty of updating the Convention derives in part from the insistence of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) that UNCAC may be used as a legal document suitable for treaty purposes—even though other international instruments serve similar purposes and its value as a treaty has been limited (as demonstrated by, among other things, the fact that UNCAC has been used for mutual legal assistance only 17 times in over a decade).

So, with a reboot of the existing Convention unlikely, maybe it’s time for a new Convention—an UNCAC Mark II. An UNCAC Mark II— which we might perhaps call the UN Convention on the Prevention of Corruption (UNCPC)—could provide a framework that promotes innovative, flexible, and forward-looking means to address corruption challenges, going beyond technical and compliance approaches.

The main focus of the proposed UNCPC, as the name implies, should be on mainstreaming prevention of corruption, both for its own sake and as a means toward wider objectives, such as trust in public institutions, good governance, and the rule of law. Chapters of such a convention could address, for example: risk assessment, developing strategic approaches, promoting public integrity, transparency and accountability, managing the political and partisan dimensions of public life, preventing profiting from corruption, prioritizing citizen-facing public services, and developing measurable progress and performance. In particular, and largely missing from the current Convention, a UNCPC should address the roles and expectations of a wide range of named in-country public and private sector organizations, as well as in civil society, to collectively mainstream the Convention as part of their work.

Such a Convention needn’t start from scratch. Its contents and coherence would come from synthesizing and integrating the wide range of the corruption prevention initiatives, most of which post-date UNCAC. These include, for example, the Kuala Lumpur Statement on Anti-Corruption Strategies, the international standard on anti-bribery management systems (ISO 37001), the Council of Europe’s work on public ethics, the extractive industries and other transparency initiatives, and the work of organizations like the UN Global Compact and the UNCAC Civil Society Coalition. The contents of a new Convention could also draw on the empirical evidence from GRECO reviews and Transparency International National Integrity Studies. Engaging with all these organizations, who have a stake in prevention, will foster a collective sense of ownership, and they can also take a leading role in monitoring and reviewing implementation of the Convention.

In contrast to UNCAC, this proposed new Convention should not seek global membership. Rather, the UNCPC should require both serious substantive commitments and acceptance of a rigorous whole-Convention peer-review system focused on demonstrable performance and progress. At the same time, evidence from practice on the ground will inform an equally rigorous review and revision of the Convention to ensure its relevance. The overall goal is a more comprehensive and dynamic Convention that provides a collective, mutually-supportive approach to anticorruption, one that seeks to achieve meaningful results within realistic timeframes.

It’s Not Just the Corporate Transparency Act: Other Reasons To Welcome the Passage of the U.S. NDAA

Last week I posted about the Corporate Transparency Act (CTA), the new law requiring companies to provide the government with information about their ultimate beneficial owners. The CTA, which was passed (over President Trump’s veto) as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), has been getting a lot of attention in the anticorruption and anti-money laundering (AML) community, and rightly so. The product of decades of tireless and shrewd advocacy, the CTA—despite its limitations and imperfections—will make it substantially harder for kleptocrats, terrorists, organized crime groups, and others to abuse corporate structures to facilitate their crimes and hide their loot. But the CTA is not the only part of the NDAA that may have a substantial positive impact on the fight against corruption and money laundering. And while it’s entirely understandable that most of the attention (and celebration) in the anticorruption community has focused on the CTA, I wanted to use today’s post to highlight several other provisions in the NDAA that may also prove important in combating corruption and money laundering. Continue reading

A Few Thoughts on the Passage of the U.S. Corporate Transparency Act

[Note: I drafted the post below earlier this week, before yesterday’s shocking events in the U.S. Capitol. I mention this only because it might otherwise seem odd, and perhaps a bit tone-deaf, to publish a commentary on new corporate transparency rules when we just saw an attempted insurrection incited by the siting U.S. President. I don’t really have anything to say about the latter events (at least nothing that others haven’t already said), so I decided to go ahead and publish the post I planned to publish today anyway.]

Last week, as I suspect many readers of this blog are well aware, the United States Congress enacted one of the most significant anticorruption/anti-money laundering (AML) reforms in a generation. The Corporate Transparency Act (CTA), which was incorporated as part of the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), will require—for the first time in the United States—that corporations, limited liability companies, and similar entities will have to provide the U.S. government (specifically, the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN)) with the identities of the ultimate beneficial owners of those entities. That beneficial ownership information, though not made publicly available, will be provided to law enforcement agencies, as well as to financial institutions conducting due diligence (with customer consent). This reform will make it substantially harder for kleptocrats and their cronies—as well as other criminals, including human traffickers and terrorists—to conceal and launder their assets in the United States through anonymous shell companies, and will make it substantially easier for law enforcement to “follow the money” when investigating possible criminal activity.

This important reform has already gotten a ton of coverage in the anticorruption/AML community (see here, here, here, and here), as well as the mainstream media (see here, here, here, and here), though mainstream coverage has understandably been overshadowed by both the coronavirus pandemic and President Trump’s attempts to subvert the recent election. And we’ve had quite a bit of discussion of the issue on GAB prior to the passage of the NDAA (see, for example, here, here, here, here, and here). So, I’m not sure I really have that much to add to what others have already said. Nevertheless, it felt strange to allow this landmark event to go entirely undiscussed on GAB, so at the risk of self-indulgence, I’d like to throw out a few additional thoughts and observations related to the CTA. Continue reading

New Podcast Episode, Featuring Norm Eisen

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this week’s episode, I interview Norm Eisen, currently a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. Mr. Eisen previously served as the White House Special Counsel for Ethics and Government during the Obama Administration, as the U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic from 2011-2014, and as counsel to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee during the impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump. Mr. Eisen is also a founder and previous board chair of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which, among other activities, sued President Trump for allegedly receiving unlawful emoluments from foreign and state governments. My conversation with Mr. Eisen–like my conversation with my Jack Goldsmith last month–focuses primarily on what the Trump Administration has taught us about the strengths and weaknesses of the U.S. system for constraining corruption, conflicts of interest, and other forms of wrongdoing by the President and senior members of the executive branch, as well as what kinds of institutional reforms and policy changes would help prevent such wrongdoing going forward. Mr. Eisen emphasizes the resilience of U.S. institutions in the face of the “stress test” provided by the Trump Administration, outlines some of the most important reforms he’d like to see adopted to address the corruption risks that Trump experience has highlighted, and discusses some of the international implications of this issue. You can find this episode here. You can also find both this episode and an archive of prior episodes at the following locations: KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

Guest Post: Sierra Leone’s Tenuous and Incomplete Anticorruption Campaign

Felix Marco Conteh, an independent research consultant based in Sierra Leone, contributes the following guest post:

Sierra Leone has a serious corruption problem. And while the importance of fighting corruption unites Sierra Leoneans—who tend to blame corruption for all the country’s socio-economic and political challenges—the citizens of this intensely polarized country remain divided on how to do so. The country seems to have fallen into a pattern in which each new administration pledges to tackle corruption, but adopts strategies that are aimed more at appealing to domestic and international constituencies in the short-term, rather than lay a foundation for longer-term success. The new administrations’ short-term strategies too often involve criminalizing politics in a way that appears to target the political opposition, contributing to deeper polarization and instability. Continue reading

Guest Post: Why Nigeria’s Main Anticorruption Body Should Not Become a Debt Collection Agency, and How to Stop It

Today’s guest post is from Pallavi Roy and Mitchell Watkins, respectively Research Director and Research Fellow at the University of London, SOAS Anti-Corruption Evidence Consortium (SOAS-ACE).

Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), established in 2003, was initially effective at investigating and prosecuting bribery, fraud, tax evasion, money laundering, and a host of other financial crimes. Indeed, it was instrumental in prosecuting senior political leaders and corporate actors involved in illegal activities, as well as in recovering significant stolen assets that belonged to the Nigerian state. More recently, however, the Commission has been subject to frequent political interference and corruption. For example, a recent SOAS-ACE study found that private actors—commercial banks, businesses, and high net-worth individuals—routinely exploit the coercive power of the EFCC to help them recover their debts, rather than turning to the courts and other civil dispute resolution mechanisms. This occurs even though, as a matter of law, civil debt collection lies outside the EFCC’s jurisdiction. Continue reading

New Podcast Episode, Featuring Doussouba Konaté and Moussa Kondo

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this week’s episode, I interview Doussouba Konaté and Moussa Kondo, who are, respectively, the Program Officer for the Accountability Lab and the Country Director for Accountability Lab Mali. (The Accountability Lab is a civil society group organized as a network of local Accountability Labs that focus on fighting corruption and promoting accountability and integrity.) In our conversation, Doussouba and Moussa describe the Accountability Lab’s “human-centric” approach to fighting corruption, and discuss some of their main initiatives. These include the Integrity Icon project, which strives to “name and fame” honest government officials, and the civic action teams that help gather information in, and disseminate information to, local communities to facilitate collective action and promote accountability, while combating fake news. Our interview also discusses how, more recently, Accountability Lab Mali has sought to track the disbursement of COVID-19 relief funds. In addition to these specific initiatives, we also discuss the broader political situation in Mali and how the political challenges facing the country relate to the corruption problem, and what the highest priorities for anticorruption reform in Mali should be right now.

You can find this episode here. You can also find both this episode and an archive of prior episodes at the following locations:

KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

Guest Post: The Ukrainian Constitutional Court’s Invalidation of Anticorruption Laws Has Plunged the Country into a Double Crisis

Today’s guest post is from Kyrylo Korol, a judicial clerk at the High Anti-Corruption Court of Ukraine.

This past fall, between August and October, the Constitutional Court of Ukraine (CCU) ruled that several of Ukraine’s most important anticorruption laws and institutions are unconstitutional.

  • The CCU first ruled unconstitutional the Decree of the President of Ukraine on the appointment of the director of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), which is responsible for anticorruption investigations; the Court also invalidated the President’s powers to appoint NABU’s head, a decision that created uncertainty regarding the legitimacy of the current director of NABU. The Court reasoned that the because the power to appoint the NABU director was not included in the list of presidential powers specified in the Constitution, the President could not exercise this power. The CCU also ruled unconstitutional the external commission that evaluates NABU’s performance.
  • In a subsequent case, the CCU declared unconstitutional the powers of the National Agency on Corruption Prevention (NACP) to check the public official’s declarations of assets. The Court reasoned that the NACP’s powers to review asset declarations extended to asset declarations submitted by judges, and that this arrangement would give an executive body impermissible control over the judiciary. The CCU further ruled that the law that imposes criminal liability for knowingly submitting a false asset declarations was unconstitutional, on the grounds that the penalties (which can include fines of up to $1,700, community service, or, imprisonment and disqualification from certain offices) was unconstitutionally disproportionate to the damage caused by the crime. These decisions led to the closure of hundreds of criminal cases for false declaration and the acquittals of public officials who had been found guilty of this crime. Going forward, the elimination of penalties for public officials who fail to file asset declarations, or who file false declarations, essentially nullifies the financial declaration system.

Continue reading

Guest Post: Making the Most of “Windows of Opportunity” for Anticorruption Reform

Today’s guest post is from Florencia Guerzovich, María Soledad Gattoni, and Dave Algoso, a team of independent consultants who jointly authored the Open Society Foundation report on Seeing New Opportunities: How Global Actors Can Better Support Anti-Corruption Reformers.

Ukraine after the Maidan Revolution. Malaysia after the 1MDB Scandal. Brazil after Lava Jato.

In each of these countries—and in many other examples—something triggered a shift in the possibilities for anticorruption reform. Pick your favorite metaphor: the stars align, the winds shift, there’s a fork in the road. We use the term “window of opportunity”: a period when heightened attention to an issue like corruption makes anticorruption reforms more likely. When those windows open, reformers both inside and outside of government try to seize the opportunity to make progress, while contending with forces that aim to maintain the status quo or advance an authoritarian or populist response.

Reformers’ approaches shift in these moments, as do their needs. Though success is not guaranteed, the possibility of reform can increase when global support organizations—including foundations, multilaterals, and NGOs—are better able to meet those needs (while also doing no harm). What do reformers most need during these windows of opportunity? And what can global support organizations do to help meet those needs? With the Open Society Foundations (OSF), we undertook research into those questions, with a primary focus on three case studies:

  • In Guatemala, the “Guatemalan spring” that opened following the announcement of corruption investigations into President Otto Pérez Molina and others in 2015, and the subsequent election of Jimmy Morales;
  • In Slovakia, the mobilizations under the “For a Decent Slovakia” banner and reform efforts that followed the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová in 2018;
  • In South Africa, the fight against state capture, which ended Jacob Zuma’s presidency and led to the administration of Cyril Ramaphosa in 2018.

Our findings, presented in a recent OSF report entitled Seeing New Opportunities: How Global Actors Can Better Support Anti-Corruption Reformers, were not always what we’d expected when we started the research. Collectively, our analysis of these case studies and other examples suggests some rethinking in terms of how to best support anticorruption reformers so that they can take maximum advantage of windows of opportunity when they arise. Continue reading

Guest Post: The Coalition for Integrity’s New SWAMP Index Highlights Progress and Shortcomings in U.S. State Ethics Systems

Today’s guest post is by Shruti Shah and Alex Amico, respectively President and Legal Fellow at the Coalition for Integrity, a civil society advocacy organization focused on corruption in the United States.

The unprecedented health crisis has demonstrated yet again the importance of strong ethics and transparency laws—not only on the national level, but at the sub-national level as well. In the United States, citizens are looking to their state legislators and governors to provide leadership, even as the large sums of government being spent on the pandemic response raise concerns about corruption and self-dealing. It is essential for the public to have confidence that public officials will adhere to the highest standards of ethics and integrity. One way to ensure this is with a strong state-level framework for ethics laws. To improve our understanding of the existing frameworks, and to highlight priority areas for improvement, the Coalition for Integrity recently released the second edition of the States With Anti-corruption Measures for Public employees (S.W.A.M.P.) Index. This report updates and expands on our 2018 report, with two new questions to better reflect the state of ethics regimes. Continue reading