Guest Post: Rolling Back Anticorruption

Laurence Cockcroft, a founding board member of, and current advisor to, Transparency International, contributes today’s guest post:

The global campaign against corruption has become a cornerstone of Western foreign and development policy for the last 25 years. This campaign built on a number of earlier measures, most notably the 1977 enactment of the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), which criminalized foreign bribery by companies under US jurisdiction, but the campaign really accelerated beginning in the late 1990s. For example, while European countries had resisted adopting legislation similar to the FCPA for 20 years, this changed with the adoption of the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention in 1997, which was followed a few years later by the 2002 UN Convention Against Corruption. International financial institutions like the World Bank have become more aggressive about debarment of contractors found to have behaved corruptly, and we have also seen the proliferation of corporate-level ethical codes, promoted by organizations like the World Economic Forum and UN Global Compact, designed to prevent corrupt behavior.

More recent initiatives have pushed for greater corporate transparency. For example, in the United States, the Dodd-Frank Act ended the aggregation of corporate income across countries; an EU Directive promulgated shortly afterwards imposed similar requirements. More recently, an initiative to disclose the true beneficial owners of corporations and other legal entities, pushed by former British Prime Minister David Cameron, has already taken legislative form in the United Kingdom; beneficial ownership transparency is also the subject of an EU Directive, and was being promoted by the Obama administration. And although the so-called “offshore centers” have yet to embrace similar transparency of beneficial ownership, regulatory systems in these centers have been significantly improved. There have also been a number of important sector-level initiatives, particularly in the resources sector. These include the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI)—which requires participating governments of mineral and energy exporting countries, as well as companies in the extractive sector, to commit to a process of revenue transparency—as well as national-level laws, such as Section 1504 of the Dodd-Frank Act, which impose so-called “publish what you pay” obligations on extractive firms.

Even more encouragingly, this gradually improving regulatory environment has been accompanied by growing public opposition to corruption, as reflected in large-scale demonstrations around the world. Crowds on the streets, for example, have recently supported the proposed prosecutions of the current and past Presidents of Brazil, and opposed weakening of anticorruption laws in Romania.

But in spite of public opinion, the forces opposed to anticorruption initiatives have never gone away. The arrival of President Trump has let many of them loose both inside and outside the United States: Continue reading

The Role of Corruption in the Syrian Civil War

Many forces spurred on the development of the Syrian Civil War, a conflict that has likely led to the deaths of over half a million people, as well as the displacement of ten million more. While fighting was sparked by protests within Syria, a reflection of the larger wave of discontent in the Middle East and North Africa that spurred the so-called Arab Spring, the uniquely destructive path of Syria’s internal instability is tied to more specifically Syrian problems, including rule by a minority religious group – the Alawites – over a mostly Sunni country, early and continued support by Russia to maintain the Assad regime, a partially autonomous Kurdish minority in the north, and the rise of Sunni rebel groups including ISIS. While these larger points are important, another, more mundane factor is often overlooked: the pervasive corruption of the Assad regime, which contributed to the outbreak of the civil war in at least three ways:

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Verdicts and Judicial Strength: Why Convictions Should Not Be the Focus of Anticorruption Efforts

As I discussed in my last post, effective anticorruption enforcement requires a judicial system with the capacity and will to hold powerful defendants criminally liable for their malfeasance. Understandably, then, judicial institutions, especially in developing countries, are often written off as weak or corrupt if they are unable to convict and sentence high-profile corruption defendants. Acquittals can seem synonymous with impunity, regardless of the justifications put forth by the court. On this measure, many domestic judiciaries charged with high-profile cases fail. For example, almost all of the central figures ousted in the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt were ultimately acquitted of all corruption-related charges. Additional examples of high-profile corruption acquittals or dismissals abound around the world (see here, here, here, here, and here).

To be sure, the inability of many judiciaries to hold high-profile corruption defendants criminally accountable is often indicative of underlying problems in the court system, and these problems must be addressed. At the same time, though, I worry that domestic and international constituencies sometimes put too much emphasis on individual verdicts, or overall conviction rates, as the measure of judicial effectiveness. While these indicators can provide important information, overemphasizing guilty verdicts in particular corruption cases, or overall conviction rates, could actually be counterproductive to anticorruption progress, for at least three reasons: Continue reading