A Cautious Challenge to Constitutionalizing Anticorruption Commissions

Anticorruption commissions (ACCs) have had a turbulent history as a mechanism for fighting corruption. While some, such as those in Hong Kong and Singapore, have effectively executed their mandate to investigate and prosecute instances of graft, bribery, and other forms of corruption, others ACCs have been criticized as toothless, inefficient, or themselves corrupt. The failure of most African ACCs, in particular, has left some wondering whether these institutions were worth the trouble.

One influential view holds that the key to making ACCs more effective is constitutionalizing them. While a handful of countries began incorporating constitutional provisions on ACCs back in the 1980s, the trend towards constitutionalization accelerated in the 2010s. This practice reflected an emerging consensus in the anticorruption community. The 2012 Jakarta Statement on Principles for Anti-Corruption Agencies, for example, recommended that in order to ensure “independence and effectiveness,” ACCs should “be established by proper and stable legal framework, such as the Constitution.” Transparency International highlighted constitutionalization as a best practice in ACC design in 2014. That same year, a joint report by International IDEA, the Center for Constitutional Transitions, and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) cited a “growing international consensus” around the wisdom of enshrining ACCs in the constitution. And in the seven years since that report, some of the most high-profile, internationalized constitutional processes—including those in Tunisia (2014), Nepal (2015), Yemen (2015) Sudan (2019), and Algeria (2020)—have included an ACC in their interim or permanent constitutions. By my count, the number of countries that have an explicit constitutional provision mandating an ACC now stands at 23 and counting.

Does constitutionalizing the ACC help in the way that proponents hope? Are the benefits of constitutionalizing these institutions large enough to justify their inclusion in such a diverse range of constitutional processes? Possibly—but possibly not. The evidence is murky and inconclusive, but there are some reasons to doubt whether constitutionalization can overcome the obstacles that have limited the effectiveness of ACCs in the past.

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#Ley3de3 and the Power of Mexican Civil Society

As I discussed in an earlier post, Mexico enacted a series of constitutional anticorruption reforms last spring. I praised those reforms for their comprehensiveness and their potential to resolve problems of corruption at the state and local levels. However, I also noted that they required secondary enabling laws to actually go into effect. Until recently, the likelihood of enacting those laws on time looked slim, as the late-May deadline approached with considerable foot-dragging by the legislature. But Mexican civil society has risen to the challenge in an exciting way. Thanks to a 2012 constitutional reform that allows citizens to introduce bills to the legislature with 120,000 signatures (or 1.3 percent the voter rolls), an anticorruption bill has now been delivered to and is being debated by the Mexican Senate.

Called Ley 3de3, the initiative is an extraordinary example of civic engagement. Leading civil society groups have spearheaded the campaign, and universities and even for-profit businesses have gotten involved (see here and here). When the law was first delivered to the Mexican Senate on March 17th, it had over 300,000 signatures. A second installment of almost 325,000 more signatures was delivered nineteen days later. The legislation works to fill a number of important holes in the Mexican anticorruption landscape. For example, it requires public servants to disclose their assets, private interests, and tax returns (the 3-out-of-3 which gives the law its title) and proposes protection for whistleblowers who report corruption. The law faces a number of obstacles before it is passed, and other laws will be necessary to fully enact the National Anticorruption System promised by the constitutional reforms. However, the Ley 3de3 effort should be cause for, at least tempered, optimism. Continue reading

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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