What, Besides Creating a New Court, Could the International Community Do To Fight Grand Corruption? A Partial List

Last week, Richard Goldstone and Robert Rotberg posted a response to Professor Alex Whiting’s critique of the proposal to create an International Anti-Corruption Court (IACC). Early in their response, Goldstone and Rotberg–both advocates for an IACC–remarked, a bit snarkily, that “[n]otably absent from [Professor Whiting’s] post is a description of what the other effective responses to combating grand corruption might be.”

That struck me as a bit of a cheap shot. Professor Whiting’s post offered a careful, thoughtful argument based on his experience and knowledge of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and similar tribunals, and not every such critical commentary on a given proposal must include a full-blown discussion of alternatives. Still, Goldstone and Rotberg’s implicit challenge to IACC skeptics to articulate alternative responses to grand corruption is worth taking seriously, for two reasons:

  • First, this seems to be a common rhetorical gambit by advocates for an IACC, or for other radical measures that critics deem impractical: Rather than answering and attempting to refute the critics’ specific objections directly, the move is to say, “Well, but this is a huge problem, and there’s no other way to solve it, so poking holes in this proposal is really just an excuse for inaction. This may seem like a long shot, but it’s the only option on the table.”
  • Second, and more charitably to those who make this point, grand corruption is indeed an enormous problem that needs to be addressed. And so even though not every critical commentary on a particular proposal needs to include a full-blown discussion of alternatives, those of us who (like me) are skeptical of deus-ex-machina-style responses to the grand corruption problem ought to make a more concerted effort to lay out an alternative vision for what can be done.

In this post I want to (briefly and incompletely) take up the implicit challenge posed by Goldstone and Rotbert (and, in other writings, by other IACC proponents). If the international community is serious about fighting corruption, what else could it do, besides creating a new international court and compelling all countries to join it and submit to its jurisdiction? When people like Professor Whiting (and I) suggest that lavishing time and attention on the IACC proposal might be a distraction from other, more effective approaches, what do we have in mind? What else could international civil society mobilize behind, besides something like an IACC, to address the problem of grand corruption?

Here are a few items on that agenda: Continue reading

Brazil’s Electoral Dilemma: Which Outcome Will Be Better for Anticorruption?

My post last week expressed some dismay at the political situation in Brazil, and the role that understandable disgust at widespread corruption in the left-wing Worker’s Party (PT), which controlled the presidency from 2003 to 2016, seems to be playing in contributing to the astonishing electoral success of far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro—whose extremist views, history of bigotry, violent rhetoric, and admiration for autocrats has led some to label him, with justification, as a quasi-fascist—was the top vote-getter in the first round of Brazilian’s two-round presidential election system, and he is favored to win the run-off against PT candidate Fernando Haddad on October 28. Though I’m no expert on Brazil or its politics, this situation—voter revulsion at the corruption of the mainstream parties leading to the rise of a tough-talking extremist—is distressingly familiar. It’s a pattern we’ve seen play out in several countries now, usually with quite unfortunate consequences. So, much as I believe that corruption is a serious problem, and tend to support aggressive anticorruption efforts—including the so-called Car Wash (Lava Jato) investigations in Brazil—I used my last post to express my dismay that anticorruption sentiments might propel someone like Bolsonaro to victory. Some things, I argued, are more important than corruption.

The post seems to have touched a nerve—I’ve gotten far more feedback on that post (some in the public comments section, some in private communications) than anything else I’ve written in the four and half years I’ve been blogging about corruption. While some of the comments have been the sort of substance-free invective one gets used to on the internet, a lot of people have provided useful, thoughtful, constructive criticism and pushback of various kinds. So I thought that perhaps it would be worth doing another post on this general topic, and connecting my thoughts about the current Brazilian political situation to some more general themes or problems that those of us who work on anticorruption need to confront, whether or not we have any particular interest in Brazil. Continue reading

Some Things Are More Important Than Corruption (Brazilian Elections Edition)

In the anticorruption community, it is fairly common to puzzle over—and bemoan—the fact that voters in many democracies seem to support candidates that are known or reputed to be corrupt. “Why,” we often ask, “do voters often elect or re-elect corrupt politicians, despite the fact that voters claim to despise corruption?” One of the common answers that we give to this question (an answer supported by some empirical research) is that even though voters dislike corruption, they care more about other things, and are often willing to overlook serious allegations of impropriety if a candidate or party is attractive for other reasons. We often make this observation ruefully, sometimes accompanied with the explicit or implicit wish that voters would make anticorruption a higher priority when casting their votes.

We should be careful what we wish for. Continue reading

Dear American Congress, Please Don’t Destroy Guatemala’s Best Hope for Combatting Corruption

Unproven, implausible allegations about Russian meddling in Guatemala’s judicial system threaten one of the most innovative and successful efforts to curb grand corruption now underway.  The Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, a hybrid UN-Guatemalan investigative agency known by its Spanish initials CICIG, has made enormous progress taming grand corruption, drug trafficking, the wholesale murder of indigenous people, and other crimes committed by an insular elite who, until the advent of CICIG, operated without fear of prosecution.  CICIG’s success rests on its independence from Guatemala’s corrupt elite, both in the investigators it hires, often from other Spanish-speaking countries with no ties to anyone in Guatemala, and its funding, a significant portion of which is provided by the U.S. Congress.  Thanks to these conditions, it has presented Guatemalan prosecutors with air-tight cases against former presidents, vice-presidents, ministers, and senior military and civil servants.

CICIG’s American funding is now in doubt thanks to a story those most in danger from CICIG sold Wall Street Journal opinion writer Mary O’ Grady.  O’Grady wrote in March that CICIG took money from Russian interests to push the prosecution of Russian dissidents who emigrated to Guatemala.  O’Grady’s story caught the attention of several in Congress who now question whether the U.S. should continue supporting CICIG.  Thankfully, the story has not gone unanswered.  A wave of stories knocking it down and noting its origin among the very elite in CICIG’s cross-hairs has appeared in, among other outlets, the Economist (here), the Washington Post (here), and the Guatemalan media (here and here [Spanish].  The American Bar Association (here) sharply questioned the premises underpinning O’Grady’s claims.

The latest support for CICIG comes from a former Guatemalan vice president and several former foreign ministers and ambassadors in a letter to the U.S. Congress.   The letter itself is a welcome sign that a new elite is rising that is not afraid to counter the old corrupt elite.  In it they write forcefully of CICIG’s critical importance to the well-being of Guatemala’s citizens:

Continue reading

Internationalizing the Fight Against Corruption: The EU Mission in Kosovo

For countries saddled with a tight-knit, corrupt leadership class, what happened last week in Guatemala is cause for celebration.  There a normally meek judiciary slapped down the president’s effort to end a corruption investigation that threatens his rule.  What made the difference was the investigation is led by a United Nations entity created under an accord an earlier government had signed with the U.N.  The agreement, and the support it enjoys both in Guatemala and abroad, gave the nation’s Constitutional Court both the legal rationale and the backbone to tell the president that even he was not above the law.

Before corruption fighters embrace internationalization as the deus ex machina in the corruption fight, however, they will want to pay heed to another, far less publicized event, that also took place last week: publication of Joschka Proksik’s analyis of the European Union’s rule of law mission in Kosovo ( (published in this volume). As with Guatemala, the government of Kosovo agreed to share with an international agency the power to enforce the nation’s criminal law.  Unlike Guatemala, however, where the U.N. can only investigate allegations of criminal misconduct and domestic prosecutors and courts must take it from there, in Kosovo the EU’s power is unlimited.  EU personnel can at any time and for any reason investigate, prosecute, and judge whether a Kosovar has violated the nation’s criminal law — without any involvement whatsoever by local authorities.  Moreover, EULEX, as the mission is known, is far larger and far better resourced than the UN’s Guatemalan mission, staffed at its peak by some 1,900 international personnel at a cost of over €100 million in administrative expense alone.

Proksik interviewed dozens of current and former EULEX staff, analyzed data on investigations, prosecutions, and convictions, and perused pervious evaluations by the European Union and independent observers to determine what the progress EULEX has made in its almost nine-year life in realizing its core objectives of helping Kosovo’s judiciary and law enforcement agencies remain “free from political interference” and adhere to “internationally recognized standards and European best practices.”  Because his careful, balanced, professional assessment merits the attention of aIl looking for ways to help countries stuck with corrupt leaders, I won’t give away the bottom line.  But safe to say it forms an important counter to the Guatemala experience.

Proksik suggests some reasons why the results of internationalizing the corruption fight in the two countries differ so: EU’s large and unwieldy bureaucracy, the lack of a shared language between Kosovars and internationals, and the short-term secondments of many international staff.  As Matthew explained earlier this year, there are pros and cons to internationalizing, or outsourcing, the fight against corruption.  Given what a successful effort can achieve, understanding why the results in Kosovo have been so different from those in Guatemala is surely a topic worthy of sustained, careful attention.

Internationalizing the Fight Against Corruption: the Guatemala Showdown

Guatemala shows how a beleaguered citizenry can fight a thoroughly corrupt leadership.  A joint United Nations/Guatemalan agency, known by its Spanish initials CICIG, has for several years been waging all out war against corruption in Guatemala (details here).  Besides winning corruption convictions against countless senior politicians and military leaders, its investigations led to the 2015 ouster of then President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti for orchestrating a massive corruption scheme in customs.  CICIG has been able to withstand the inevitable backlash that cases against the powerful generate thanks to a remarkable alliance between Guatemalans fed up with corruption and impunity and those in the international community willing to provide not only financial support but political backing too.

Fearing he is about to become the target of a CICIG investigation, Guatemala’s current president Jimmy Moralesis is testing the strength of the alliance. On August 26 he issued a decree expelling CICIG’s head, claiming the commission was compromising the country’s sovereignty.  Given Guatemala’s experience with foreign intervention, one would expect his claim to resonate, but so far outside far right circles it has gained little traction. The day after his order issued the Guatemalan Constitutional Court granted an amparo (protective order) staying the expulsion order pending a hearing on its lawfulness.  Guatemalans have taken to the streets, and commentators to the airwaves and op-ed pages, to protest Morales’ action.

International backers of CICIG have come to its defense too.  The U.N. Secretary General, the U.S. State Department, the European Union, and the Latin American Association of Ombudsmen have all denounced Morales’ order.  CICIG’s most important international ally may well be U.S. Congresswoman Norma Torres.  Guatemalan by birth, she is a leading voice on U.S. policy towards Guatemala, from shaping a responsible foreign assistance program, to devising a humane immigration policy, to supporting the fight against corruption. In an August 29 opinion piece in a Guatemalan daily (reprinted below in English) she not only strongly backed CICIG but reminded Morales his actions were putting millions of dollars of U.S. aid at risk. However much cheap demagoguery about foreign intervention and “Yankee imperialism” might undermine the credibility of CICIG’s other international supporters, the Congresswoman would seem immune.

Guatemala is a model for how a small country stuck with entrenched, powerful and corrupt leaders can mobilize international organizations, friendly governments, and key members of the diaspora to help purge the nation of corruption.  The outcome of the showdown between President Moralies and that alliance in Guatemala will be a critical test of the model’s viability.

Iván Velásquez and the Future of Guatemala
by Congresswoman Norma Torres

Like many chapines [Guatemalans] in Guatemala and abroad, I was shocked and dismayed by President Morales’s decision to declare Iván Velásquez “persona non grata.”  This decision is not only a devastating step back in the progress that has been made in anti-corruption efforts, it will delay justice in the important investigations and that are currently underway. It may also have lasting repercussions for Guatemala’s future by putting at risk millions of dollars in critical assistance. Continue reading

U.S. to Honor Corruption Fighters from Afghanistan, Angola, Guatemala, Malaysia, and Ukraine

Afghanistan NGO leader Khalil Parsa, Angolan journalist Rafael Marques de Morais, Guatemalan judge Claudia Escobar, Malaysian civil society activist Cynthia Gabriel, and Ukrainian investigative journalist Denys Bihus will share the 2017 Democracy Award for their work promoting democracy in their countries.  Bestowed annually by the National Endowment for Democracy, the U.S. democracy promotion agency, the ceremony will be held June 7 at the U.S. Capitol.  Republican House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan and the House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi will both speak.

This year’s award is significant for three reasons.  In the wake of concerns Trump Administration rhetoric has raised about America’s commitment to human rights and democracy, Speaker Ryan and Leader Pelosi’s participation is a reminder that a strong, bipartisan consensus on these basic, universal values remains deeply embedded in U.S. political culture.  Second is the recognition by the National Endowment, perhaps the world’s leading advocate of democracy, that the fight against corruption is an essential element in building a democratic state.  Finally, the award is one more sign that those fighting corruption at home are not alone, that the international community supports them and stands with them.

More on the ceremony, biographies of each recipient, and the National Endowment’s democracy promotion work here.