The U.S. Combating Global Corruption Act Is a Worthwhile Proposal that Deserves More Attention

I know a lot of what I write on this blog is pessimistic, critiical, or both, but every once in a while it’s nice to call attention to some positive, encouraging developments. In this spirit, I was heartened to read that a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators last week introduced a new bill, the “Combating Global Corruption Act of 2017” (CGCA), that strikes me as quite a good idea overall. Yes, I realize that most bills like this never make it out of committee, let alone get enacted into law. And yes, the bill has a number of problems, some of which might be fixable through the amendment process but others of which are more inherent. But on the whole, it seems to me that this is the sort of bill that the U.S. anticorruption community ought to support.

Here’s a quick summary of what the bill would do, why I think it’s basically a sound idea, and (because I can’t help myself) a few of its problems and difficulties. (The full text of the bill can be found at the link above, and a press release about it from Senator Cardin’s office is here.) Continue reading

Appearances Can Be Revealing: The Trump Administration’s Corruption Perceptions Problem

In the wake of President Trump’s Executive Order “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” (also known as the “Muslim Ban”), numerous media outlets published articles highlighting the fact that Trump’s order excluded several predominantly Muslim countries where the Trump organization conducts business (see here, here and here). The implication was that this exclusion was intentional, and demonstrates the extent to which Trump’s business ventures create conflicts of interest that influence his policy decisions. Although this explanation is plausible, another likely explanation is that the list of countries targeted by the ban tracked the visa waiver program restrictions Congress passed in 2015 and the Obama administration expanded in 2016 (see here).

Were the limitations on the ban driven by corruption or policy priorities? We don’t know—and that’s the problem. Even if Trump’s executive order had no connection with his business, Trump’s extensive conflicts of interest and unwillingness to divest from foreign holdings casts a shadow of corruption over any decision made by the administration. The fact that every decision Trump makes could be tainted with the appearance of self-interest, regardless of whether his administration actually is doing what it believes is in the public’s interest, is incredibly damaging, delegitimizing, and destabilizing. This is why we have ethics rules for government officials that seek to prevent not only corruption, but also the appearance of corruption. Trump’s failure to clear his presidency of any potential conflicts of interest has a few particularly pernicious effects:

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Public Trust Theory: A Way Citizens Can Combat Resource Corruption?

Public trust theory derives from the sovereign’s duty to act as the guardian of certain interests for the benefit of the nation as a whole. In the United States it serves as the basis for citizen suits to vindicate environmental rights, and it has been incorporated into the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights which provides in article 21 that the wealth derived from a nation’s resources is for “the exclusive interest of the people . . . [and in] no case shall a people be deprived of it.”  Could it be used by civil society to combat grand corruption in the allocation of land and natural resources?

That is the question Elmarie van der Schyff, a professor of law at South Africa’s North-West University, addresses in a new paper prepared for the Open Society Justice Initiative’s project examining how civil society can help spark more anticorruption enforcement actions.  After carefully parsing South African law governing civil suits for damages, Professor van der Schyff concludes that “public-trust theory has a supportive role to play” in helping South Africans recover damages for injuries sustained when corruption infects the distribution or use of the nation’s natural resources.  Her thoughtful analysis shows how citizens of other states can use the principles that underlie the public trust doctrine to bring damage actions too.

Professor van der Schyff’s paper is the sixth in a series commissioned by the Open Society Justice Initiative on civil society and anticorruption litigation.  It follows earlier ones on i) standing by GAB editor-in-chief Matthew Stephenson, ii) civil society litigation in India by Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy Director Arghya Sengupta, iii) private suits for defrauding government by Houston Law School Professor David Kwok, iv) private prosecution in the U.K. by Tamlyn Edmonds and David Jugnarain, and v) damages for bribery under American law by this writer.

Guest Post: A “Right to Truth” in Grand Corruption Cases?

Lucas E. Gómez and Ignacio A. Boulin Victoria of the Latin American Center for Human Rights (Centro Latinoamericano de Derechos Humanos, CLADH) in Argentina contribute the following guest post:

Argentina, 1978. In the midst of terror, a group of parents searching for their children finds no answer in domestic justice. Thousands of habeas corpus petitions are rejected by judges. The military dictatorship denies having any clue about them: Videla, the leader of the government, declares: “they are neither dead, nor alive; they are disappeared.” These parents respond with innovative strategies (maybe without being aware of the innovation): They start sending letters of complaint (over a thousand) to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IAHCR). The result: the IACHR visits Argentina and issues a 1980 report recognizing widespread human rights violations; the report has an enormous impact both inside and outside of Argentina. Yet by 1990, these parents still don’t know what happened to their children. Despite the return to democracy in 1983, and some trials of military officers and terrorists shortly thereafter, in 1986 and 1987 Congress passes two acts restricting the criminal prosecution of military officers, and a few years later, President Menem pardons both military hierarchies and terrorists, releasing them from jail.

Argentina, 1995. Some of these parents devise a new strategy: Even if criminal prosecution is forbidden, they assert that there is still a “right to the truth”—a right to know what happened to the disappeared. Though Argentina’s Supreme Court rejects the claim, the parents again take the case to the IACHR. Finally, in 1999, Argentina settles the IACHR case, recognizing the existence of the right to truth. This development ultimately led to the re-opening of the criminal prosecutions against military officers: Once information about the atrocities came out, society started mobilizing for justice. The right to truth put in front of people’s eyes the extent and gravity of the crimes, and the identities of both the victims and the perpetrators. Continue reading