Combating Corruption in Belize Requires Structural Modifications to the Ombudsman’s Office

In the small Caribbean nation of Belize—as in many small, relatively poor countries with scarce human capital—corruption is an entrenched part of government and society. The country’s small population—less than 400,000—exacerbates issues such as nepotism and conflicts of interest, and make it difficult to hold corrupt actors accountable. Citizens harmed by corruption are understandably reluctant to report these incidents when the people to whom they would have to report are the corrupt actors’ close friends and colleagues—or in some cases the corrupt actors themselves. In an attempt to address this problem, Belize (following suit with the rest of the Caribbean) adopted an Ombudsman Act in 1994 and, pursuant to that Act, established the Office of the Ombudsman in 1999.

There is considerable variation in the role that similarly-named “Ombudsman’s Offices” play in different countries; Belize employs the classical model of an Ombudsman, though the Belizean Ombudsman has a broader human rights and anticorruption mandate than the typical Ombudsman. The Ombudsman can receive complaints from any person who alleges injustice, injury, or abuse by an authority; complaints are handled anonymously, outside of what is perceived as a corrupt system. Additionally, the Ombudsman is responsible for investigating those complaints, and it has investigative powers comparable to a judicial tribunal, which is necessary to secure crucial information from the government. The Ombudsman, which acts independently of the Government of Belize, would ideally play a significant and constructive role in combating corruption.

For these reasons, one might think that Belize’s Ombudsman is well-positioned to take a lead role in anticorruption. Yet it doesn’t seem to be doing so. Citizen complaints to the Ombudsman are relatively infrequent (only 122 new complaints were received in 2017, down from 207 new complaints filed in 2016), and of those complaints, very few concern government corruption. And when it comes to larger anticorruption reform strategy, it’s perhaps telling that the UN’s Project Document on strengthening Belize’s national systems to support the implementation of the UN Convention Against Corruption doesn’t even mention the Office of the Ombudsman as a potential avenue for supporting UNCAC’s implementation.

What could be done to make the Belizean Ombudsman’s Office a more significant and effective player in this small country’s struggle against entrenched corruption? Three things:

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The Case for State-Level Anticorruption Prosecutions in the U.S.

In the United States, the federal government’s Department of Justice (DOJ) plays a huge role in the prosecution of state-level public corruption: Over the past five years, federal prosecutors have obtained the convictions of approximately 1,700 corrupt state and local officials for corruption-related offenses. Examples range from prominent and powerful figures like Sheldon Silver, the former Speaker of the New York State Assembly, to low-level functionaries like Eloy Infante and Elpidio Yanez, Jr., two former members of the School Board of Donna, Texas.

The federal government’s primacy in prosecuting state and local corruption is no accident. One of the stories of American law enforcement in the 20th century, especially though not exclusively in the anticorruption context, is the expanding role of the federal government, an expansion that was in part a reaction to the perceived deficiencies of state law enforcement. Most states in the U.S. elect both prosecutors and judges, and concerns that these elected officials were under-resourced, incompetent, partisan, or captured by local influence-peddlers contributed to the rise of federal criminal law enforcement. The federal government’s role in prosecuting state and local corruption blossomed in the 1970s, with regional U.S. Attorney’s offices taking the lead, supported by a new DOJ Public Integrity Section in Washington, D.C. The U.S. Attorney’s offices were considered more independent and less vulnerable to capture than local law enforcement, were generally better resourced than their state and local counterparts, and were able to focus those resources on picked cases.

This system has worked well and achieved considerable success. Many argue—with justification—that the federal government’s central role in prosecuting state and local corruption was instrumental in breaking the stranglehold of corrupt political machines at the subnational level. But today, it’s important for state prosecutors to do more to supplement, and in some cases perhaps supplant, federal anticorruption prosecutions. If the story of the 20th century was a distrust of states to police their own politicians, the early 21st century story may be that we can no longer completely trust the feds to do it either. There are three main reasons why, going forward, we may need to rely increasingly on the states:

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Western Anticorruption Policy in Ukraine: Success or Failure?

A few weeks back, I came across an interesting point-counterpoint on the impact of Western-backed efforts to promote anticorruption reform in Ukraine. On one side we have an online piece in Foreign Affairs by Adrian Karatnycky (the Managing Partner of a consulting firm that “works with investors and corporations seeking entry into the complex but lucrative emerging markets of Ukraine and Eastern Europe”) and Alexander Motyl (Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University) entitled, “How Western Anticorruption Policy Is Failing Ukraine.” And then on the other side we have a response piece on the Atlantic Council blog from Daria Kaleniuk (Executive Director of the Anti-Corruption Action Centre in Kyiv) entitled “Actually, the West’s Anticorruption Policy Is Spot on.” I’m no Ukraine expert, and so I’m reluctant to take a strong position on which side has the better of the argument, but I found the debate interesting not only for its implications for Ukraine, but also because it raises a couple of more general issues that come up in many other contexts, issues that anticorruption advocates should pay attention to even if they have no particular interest in Ukraine. Those issues are, first, a question of messaging—what I’ll call the glass-half-full/glass-half-empty question—and, second, the relative importance of holding individual wrongdoers personally (and criminally) accountable for corrupt conduct.

Let me first try to give a flavor of the debate, and then say a bit about each of those two issues. Continue reading

Saudi Arabia’s Anticorruption Purge: A Sham to Consolidate Power and Lure Investors

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS, for short), has been cleaning house. In the last month, he has arrested 11 princes, four ministers, and dozens of ex-ministers, all of whom are being held in five star hotels across Riyadh. He has also detained more than 200 others for questioning. Scores of commentators and media personalities have praised MBS’s anticorruption purge (see here and here), while others have condemned it (see here and here), which goes to show just how difficult it is to understand what the recent anticorruption purge means in the context of a country like Saudi Arabia. On the one hand, in Saudi Arabia, any measure to address corruption seems to be cause for optimism. Taken against the backdrop of the many social reforms advanced by MBS, ranging from permitting women to drive, diversifying the economy, and moderating the religious establishment’s brand of Islam, the anticorruption measures appear to be part of a genuine effort to reform Saudi Arabian society. Yet this optimistic assessment naively conflates a progressive social agenda that taps into our hopes for Saudi Arabia’s future (and the Middle East’s writ large) with what Saudi Arabia’s anticorruption purge really is: an attempt to consolidate MBS’s power and reassure foreign investors. Continue reading

No Silver Bullet: Why Ukrainian Anticorruption Activists Should Not Fixate on Creating a Specialized Anticorruption Court

Ukrainian civil society activists have been aggressively campaigning for the establishment of an independent anticorruption court (see, for example, here, here, and here), in which international donors and other partners would participate in the selection of judges. Until very recently, President Poroshenko had vigorously resisted this campaign, asserting that “all courts in the country should be anti-corruption,” and proposing instead to have an anticorruption chamber within the current court system as part of his judicial reform plan. Yet in a surprising turn of events, on October 4th President Poroshenko appeared to yield to the demand of activists and international pressure to create such a court.

Poroshenko’s flip-flop seems to be a major victory for anticorruption activists in Ukraine. Yet it might be too early to celebrate. As promising as it sounds, a specialized anticorruption court is unlikely to live up to Ukrainian activists’ expectations. In a country like Ukraine—an oligarchic democracy in which governmental power is not delineated clearly by the constitution or legal framework, the executive is not effectively checked by the judiciary, and businesses are entangled with politics—the creation of a new judicial body is unlikely to be a game-changer. Moreover, in focusing so much on the campaign to create a specialized anticorruption court, domestic and international activists may be diverting energy and resources from more important issues, such as reforming the Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO), strengthening the role of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), and adopting more comprehensive political and economic reforms reduce the clout of the country’s oligarchs.

There are two main reasons that the proposed Ukrainian anticorruption court is unlikely to live up to activists’ expectations:

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State-Level Anticorruption Commissions: What the U.S. Can Learn from Australia’s Model

Australia does not currently have a dedicated national-level anticorruption agency (ACA), though the question of whether to create one has been on the table since 2014 (see here, here, and here). Yet Australia has plenty of experience with ACAs—at the state level. Australia’s first, and still most prominent, state-level ACA was the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) in New South Wales (the state including financial capital Sydney), which will mark its thirtieth anniversary next year. The ICAC, led by an independent commissioner, has independent investigatory powers over almost all state-level government officials and is charged with both exposing public sector corruption and educating the public about corruption. Queensland and Western Australia followed suit with their Corruption and Crime Commissions, established in their current forms in 2001 and 2003 respectively. The states of Victoria, South Australia, and tiny Tasmania all instituted independent agencies in recent years as well. Even the 250,000-strong Northern Territory resolved to start its own ACA after several high-profile scandals, and the Australian Capital Territory (the Canberra-sized equivalent of Washington, DC) has discussed creating its own anticorruption body. The permeation of Australia with state-level agencies is essentially complete.

Thus, in true laboratories-of-democracy fashion, Australian states have tried, solidified, and publicized the model of creating an independent investigatory group focused on the issue of corruption. Could U.S. states do the same? Easily. Should they? Yes, for at least three reasons:

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A “Paradigm Shift” in Mexican Anticorruption Law?

Problems of corruption and graft are not new in Mexico. Recently, the Mexican elite political class has been implicated in a series of real estate scandals that reached all the way to President Peña Nieto. Most notably, President Nieto and his wife have been accused of impropriety in their purchase of a 7 million dollar mansion—dubbed by the press “la Casa Blanca” (“the White House”)—from a wealthy government contractor. While not directly related, Nieto’s presidency has also been rocked by protests surrounding the disappearance and presumed death of 43 students in Guerrero. Local officials appear to have been involved in the disappearances, and the official investigation is widely viewed to have been botched.

But in the midst of all this (and arguably because it), Mexico managed to pass one of the most sweeping anticorruption reforms in recent memory. In April and May of last year, the Mexican legislature passed and the state legislatures approved reforms to 14 articles of the Mexican Constitution. Conceived of and spurred on by Mexican civil society groups, these reforms bolstered existing anticorruption institutions and created whole new ones.

The reaction to these reforms has ranged from excitement and enthusiasm, to cautious optimism, to cynical dismissal. (President Nieto, for his part, has hailed them as a “paradigm shift” in the Mexican fight against corruption.) These changes to Mexico’s constitution are only the first step in the country’s much needed systemic reform. Their success will depend substantially on secondary enabling laws to be enacted sometime before June 2016. But it’s worth stopping now to analyze what these reforms get right, and what they fail to address.

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