The Nordic countries are often seen as world leaders when it comes to anticorruption, ranking at the top of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). Yet critics have pointed out that while the Nordic countries have a sterling reputation for suppressing corruption at home, they have a much spottier record when it comes to dealing with exported corruption. This has been the case in Sweden and Denmark, and most recently, in Iceland, which has been widely criticized for its handling of the country’s first high-profile foreign bribery scandal.
The case in question was first exposed in November 2019 when three media outlets published joint investigative findings alleging that an Icelandic fishing company had paid millions of dollars in bribes to Namibian officials in order to gain access to the country’s valuable fishing zones (see here, here, and here). The reporting relied on thousands of leaked documents, which were dubbed the “Fishrot Files,” as well as first-hand testimony provided by a whistleblower, a former manager of the company’s operations in Namibia who admitted that he himself had played a role in bribing Namibian officials.
Though the scandal triggered public protests by Icelandic citizens, senior government officials in Iceland have sought to shift the blame to Namibia’s “weak” and “corrupt government.” Yet whatever governance weaknesses in Namibia may have contributed to the wrongdoing in the first place, it is notable that Namibian authorities moved swiftly to prosecute officials implicated in the scandal, including two high-level government ministers. These ministers were forced to resign and were subsequently arrested; they and eight other defendants now face charges of corruption, fraud, money laundering and tax evasion. In contrast, Icelandic authorities have yet to make any arrests or issue indictments in the case, more than three years after the initial revelations. To date, the executives implicated in the scandal have escaped official sanctions and have remained in their roles at the company.
In this instance, then, we see something rather unusual in foreign bribery cases: A strong response by a demand-side country in the global South (in this case Namibia), and a weak response by the supply-side country. Better understanding Namibia’s unusually strong response to the scandal is important in its own right, but for now, let’s focus on the question of why Iceland—which was one of the first signatories to the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention in 1998 and has readily available the legal framework necessary to handle the matter adequately—has been so ineffective in enforcing its laws against foreign bribery offences. Consider several possible explanations: Continue reading