“NGOs with Foreign Support”: A New Draft Law Threatens Ukraine’s Anticorruption NGOs

In May, Ukrainian Member of Parliament Oleksandr Dubinsky, a controversial member of the Servant of the People Party (Ukraine’s ruling party, headed by President Volodymyr Zelensky), registered a draft law that would label certain civil society organizations as “foreign agents.” More specifically, this legislation—which resembles Russia’s 2012 “foreign agent” law—would:

  • Oblige NGOs receiving at least 50% of their financial support from foreign entities to include the term “foreign support” in their organization’s name, and to include in any materials published by the NGO a disclaimer stating that the materials are published by an organization that functions with foreign support;
  • Initiate the creation of a central register of such NGOs, requiring the Ministry of Justice to publicize a list of these NGOs on its official website and to publish annual reports of foreign-funded NGO activity in Ukraine;
  • Require the management of these NGOs to undergo annual polygraph interviews in order to review whether or not these individuals have committed treason; and
  • Prohibit any individuals in NGO management positions from working in the civil service or holding membership on supervisory boards or in the leadership of state enterprises for five years after working in a foreign-funded NGO.

While Dubinsky’s proposed legislation poses a serious threat to all NGOs that receive foreign funding (except for a few categories that the draft law specifically exempts, such as NGOs that work in the sphere of culture, arts, science, prevention and health of citizens, social protection, social support for the disabled, and environmental protection), this legislation would have a particularly adverse impact on the work of anticorruption NGOs.

Continue reading

Albanian Political Leaders Are Using Covert Tactics to Silence Anticorruption Watchdog Groups

Civil society and investigative journalism have long played key roles in exposing corruption, and many CSOs and media watchdogs—especially newer, younger organizations—now make extensive use of social media platforms to engage with the public. In Albania, for example, relatively new organizations like Nisma Thurje and Faktoje frequently expose instances of corruption via Facebook, one of the most popular social media platforms in Albania. However, corrupt politicians are taking notice of these innovative tactics and finding equally innovative ways to silence their critics. In addition to ongoing efforts to censor the media and harass activists (see, for example, here and here), the Albanian elite has undertaken more clandestine efforts to attack civil society and journalists.

One savvy scheme involves Acromax Media GmBH (Acromax), a German digital rights company owned by two Albanians, which has close ties to Albania’s ruling Socialist Party. Acromax has contracts with over 95% of Albanian television stations, with far-reaching rights to take action on its own initiative against alleged copyright violations. For example, when a civil society group like Nisma Thurje posts a story on Facebook about a politician’s corruption, and includes a link to interviews or clips of the politician’s speeches that were originally broadcast on one of those TV stations, Acromax files a complaint with the social media platform alleging a copyright violation—even though re-sharing public content that clearly displays the original source is common practice around the world and does not meet the definition of copyright infringement. Moreover, Acromax only files such complaints with respect to stories that are critical of the government; pro-government posts, including clips from these same channels, are not flagged as intellectual property infringement by Acromax.

Distressingly, even though the claims of intellectual property infringement seem bogus, Facebook has largely complied with Acromax’s demands to take down content. This may be due in part to the European Union’s recent 2019 Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market, Article 17 of which makes content-sharing platforms, not just individual content uploaders, liable for intellectual property violations, which in turn has caused Facebook to employ even more automation to deal with its new legal responsibilities. Unfortunately, the automated algorithms currently in use cannot reliably distinguish genuine copyright infringement from legal re-sharing, and the algorithms are sufficiently complex and opaque that it is very difficult for CSOs to challenge the take-down decisions and get their content reinstated. Acromax has exploited these weaknesses in the system to make legitimate civil society watchdogs look like serial copyright infringers. Indeed, Acromax’s harassment campaign has been so successful that two of Nisma Thurje’s founders had personal social media pages shut down because of complaints from Acromax, and Facebook further labeled Nisma Thurje “a dangerous group” and limited the range of Nisma Thurje’s social media capabilities. The technology giant further warned Nisma Thurje that its page would be shut down entirely if Facebook received even one more copyright infringement claim.

Acromax is a well-tuned operation for squelching civil society watchdogs that threaten to expose government wrongdoing, and may serve as a model for similar censorship efforts. Tackling this problem seems daunting, but these are some concrete steps that various actors—including governments, technology companies, and the civil society groups themselves—can take to address this new kind of assault. Continue reading

Guest Post: Pushing for Anticorruption through the G20 Civil Society Engagement Process

Today’s guest post is from Blair Glencorse, the Executive Director of the Accountability Lab

As many readers of this blog know, the annual G20 meeting has a variety of associated processes, including a forum for engagement with global civil society known as the C20. This is an opportunity for civil society organizations (CSOs)—including grassroots groups, rights-focused organizations, and other activists—to feed policy recommendations directly to the most powerful governments in the world. This process has not been without challenges, especially when the G20 meeting is held in a country that is not exactly friendly to civil society activism (including Russia in 2013, China in 2016 and this year in Saudi Arabia). More generally, promises have not always matched realities, and governments have not always lived up to their commitments. Nevertheless, the C20 remains an important mechanism for ensuring that diverse, citizen-oriented voices from civil society are heard as part of G20 decision-making.

The C20 has a number of working groups, including an Anti-Corruption Working Group (ACWG), which I am co-leading this year with Dr. Saleh Al-Sheniefi. Our mandate is to prepare “comprehensive recommendations for consideration by leaders on how the G20 could continue to make practical and valuable contributions to international efforts to combat corruption.” The ACWG has active participation from civil society members from more than 50 countries, and—after consulting with other G20 engagement groups and consulted with numerous external experts—we have drafted a 3-page policy paper which will be sent to the parallel G20 Anti-Corruption Working Group in mid-May. The paper is open for comments for the next several weeks; and we would welcome any and all ideas from this blog’s readership.

While there are obviously many aspects of the corruption problem and its potential solutions that we could have addressed, we chose to focus on what we understand to be the G20’s main anticorruption priorities. (Our thinking is that, while getting the G20 to listen and live up to its commitments is always challenging at best, the odds are better if civil society’s recommendations align with the G20’s own sense of its top priorities in this area.) In particular, our policy paper focuses on the following items: Continue reading

Guest Post: Measures To Counter Corruption in the Coronavirus Pandemic Response

Today’s guest post is from Sarah Steingrüber, an independent global health expert and Global Health Lead for CurbingCorruption.

The coronavirus pandemic is a global health challenge the likes of which has not been seen in over a century. The outbreak demands swift and bold action not only in the direct response to the pandemic, but also in ensuring that monies are correctly spent, that companies do not profit unfairly from misfortune, and that power is not abused by our leaders.

Two weeks ago, I published a commentary on this blog that identified some of the critical corruption risks associated with the response to the coronavirus pandemic. In today’s post, I turn from a diagnosis of the risks to some possible solutions. In particular, I want to highlight four types of measures that will help to mitigate some of the corruption risks that were identified in my previous post. Continue reading

New Podcast, Featuring Gary Kalman

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this episode, I interview Gary Kalman, formerly (and at the time of the interview) the Executive Director of the FACT Coalition, and now the Director of the U.S. Office of Transparency International. The first part of our conversation focuses on the work Mr. Kalman did at the FACT Coalition on the push for new U.S. legislation to crack down on anonymous companies. We also discuss his vision, and top priorities, for Transparency International’s new U.S. office.

You can find this episode, along with links to previous podcast 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.

New Podcast, Featuring Leonor Ortiz Monasterio and Miguel Meza

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this episode, I interview Leonor Ortiz Monasterio and Miguel Meza of the Mexican civil society organization Mexicanos Contra Corrupcion y la Impunidad (MCCI) (“Mexicans Against Impunity and Corruption). They describe how MCCI works to fight corruption in Mexico, and critically evaluate the anticorruption efforts of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as AMLO), who ran in large part on an anticorruption platform, but whose approach to anticorruption during his first year in office has been met with significant controversy.

You can find this episode, along with links to previous podcast 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.

Legal Remedies for Grand Corruption

In too many nations, ruling elites rob the populace on a grand scale, awarding friends and relatives lucrative government contracts, siphoning off revenues from oil and other natural resources, even writing checks to themselves on the central bank.  Curbing such “grand corruption” will require much: an active, informed citizenry; coordinated international action; vigorous diplomacy; shrewd application of international sanctions.

new volume from the Open Society Justice Initiative, pictured below, describes how civil society can mobilize courts of law in the struggle.  It recounts efforts that range from using international tribunals to force government to address corruption, as the Nigerian NGO SERAP’s case before the court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States illustrates, to bringing suit against a kleptocratic ruler in a foreign jurisdiction, as Sherpa and TI-France did against Equatorial Guinean Vice President Teodoro Obiang, to the creative use of domestic law doctrines common to most legal systems to force wrongdoers to answer for their crimes in their own courts.

Grand corruption is behind many of the globe’s most pressing problems: massive environmental degradation, gross human rights abuses, large-scale emigration. Taming it must be a priority for the global community.  Legal Remedies for Grand Corruption offers an important set of tools for doing so.

Legal Remedies for Grand Corruption

Guest Post: Mercosur’s New Framework Agreement Is an Asset Recovery Landmark, But Significant Flaws Remain

GAB is delighted to welcome back Mat Tromme, Director of the Sustainable Development & Rule of Law Programme at the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, who contributes the following guest post:

In asset recovery, international collaboration is key. In December 2018, four Mercosur countries—Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay—adopted a new kind of landmark framework agreement to collaborate in investigations and sharing of forfeited assets resulting from transnational organized crime, corruption, and illicit drug trafficking. The agreement’s provisions on law enforcement collaboration are important but not groundbreaking, as many countries collaborate in investigations, including through Mutual Legal Assistance (MLA) agreements. This framework agreement can be seen as a direct application of Article 57(5) of the UN Convention Against Corruption, which calls on state parties to “give consideration to concluding agreements or mutually acceptable arrangements, on a case-by-case basis, for the final disposal of confiscated property.”

Where the new framework agreement is particularly novel and innovative is in its provisions on asset return. While there are a number of technical details, the big picture is that any of the four countries may lay claim to a portion of the assets, so long as that country played a role in its forfeiture, irrespective of where the assets are located. The framework agreement provides (in Articles 7 and 8 in particular), that the asset shares will be negotiated on a case-by-case basis, with each country’s share to be based principally on that country’s role in the investigation, prosecution, and forfeiture of the assets. Other factors that may be considered include the nature of the forfeited assets, the complexity and significance of international cooperation, and the extent to which cooperation led to the forfeiture.

To the best of my knowledge, this sort of framework agreement is rare, the only other recent example is the “Framework for Return of Assets from Corruption and Crime in Kenya (FRACCK)”, a multilateral non-binding initiative for the return of assets between the Governments of Kenya, Jersey, Switzerland and the UK. There had been calls to establish a similar initiative in Latin America going back several years (see here and here). The framework agreement has the potential to set a precedent by institutionalizing the return of assets across borders, not only improving the asset recovery and return process in Latin America, but also serving as an example for other regional collaboration agreements in Africa, Latin America, or Asia. Indeed, the 3rd African Anti-Corruption Day (held last week, on July 11th) was organized on the theme of finding a “Common African Position on Asset Recovery.” According to the African Union, the purpose of this is to advocate for Africa’s unity in demanding the recovery and return of stolen assets, and making the return process transparent and accountable.

While the approach and ambition of the agreement is laudable, the framework agreement has three important shortcomings: Continue reading

Guest Post: Expert Interviews on Corruption Control in Latin America

Today’s guest post is from Columbia University Professor Paul Lagunes, who this year is also a Visiting Fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy:

Elections in Latin America are freer and fairer than they used to be, and, with rare exceptions, political power in the region is no longer monopolized by a single individual, junta, or party. From Chile to Mexico, legal reforms have promoted higher levels of government transparency and citizen participation. But in spite of these improvements, the region continues to grapple with systemic corruption. Not only are individuals asked to pay bribes by lower-level government officials, but scandals such as Lava Jato (“Car Wash”) in Brazil, La Estafa Maestra (“The Master Fraud”) in Mexico, and La Línea (“The Line”) in Guatemala have revealed grand corruption at the most senior levels, making the fight against corruption a top priority for the region.

Prompted by these concerns, I contributed to organizing a conference at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy on corruption control in Latin America, which has already been featured (with links to the conference videos) on this blog. Some of the conference panelists stayed long enough that we were able to interview them about their important work. Tony Payan, my colleague at the Baker Institute and an expert on U.S.-Mexico border issues, agreed to conduct the interviews.

The videos of these interviews are now publicly available, and are well worth viewing for those interested in hearing a diverse range of perspectives on the corruption challenges currently facing Latin America. In this post I will provide links to the interviews as well as a brief summary of their content. (There’s also an online website, where you can find all the interviews, here.) Continue reading

Guest Post: Whistleblower Protection in Kosovo–An Unlikely Success Story of Civil Society Collective Action and International Support

Today’s guest post is from Nedim Hogic, a PhD candidate at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, Italy, and Arolda Elbasani, Visiting Scholar at New York University. The research on which this post is based was sponsored by Kosovo Open Society Foundation.

In Kosovo, as in the rest of the Balkans region more generally, anticorruption initiatives and institutional solutions have typically been top-down efforts based on templates recommended by international actors and hastily approved by a circle of local political allies. Few of those international initiatives have proved successful, often because the new laws provided enough discretion for political interests to thwart effective implementation. Hence, Kosovo, like much of the rest of the Balkans, seems trapped in a continuous yet futile cycle of international-sponsored institutional- and capacity-building measures, which have not delivered.

The 2018 amendments to Kosovo’s law on the protection of whistleblowers suggests a more promising model of legislative drafting. The amended law stands out for its collaborative and open mode of drafting, involving various international, governmental, and civil society actors, a welcome contrast to the more prevalent pattern of top-down, and largely futile, approach to legal and institutional reform. Continue reading