Impunity and Immunity: When (if Ever) Should We Sacrifice Accountability for Past Corruption Crimes?

I’ve been meaning to write a bit more about last month’s International Anti-Corruption Conference (other than my snarky reflections about anticorruption conferences generally). The conference theme was “Ending Impunity,” and indeed most of the panels and speeches emphasized, in one way or another, the importance of ending the culture of impunity and holding corrupt actors (criminally) accountable for their actions. I couldn’t agree more about the importance of ending the culture of impunity. Indeed, I suspect few people would dispute that objective; the controversies, such as they are, involve questions of means. And as a general matter, I’m also all for accountability. Who wouldn’t be? But here my commitment is more qualified, and I think the issue is a bit more complicated then some of the rhetoric sometimes implies. In fact, in the context of corruption offenses, there may be sometimes be good, or at least plausible, reasons for sacrificing accountability in order to advance some other interest.

I recognize that statement may be controversial, perhaps even heretical. Is it really ever OK to insist on less than full accountability for past corruption crimes? If so, when? The first panel I attended at the IACC, entitled “Breaking the Cycle of Impunity: Why Truth Telling and Accountability for Past Economic Crimes Matters,” brought these difficult questions to the fore. The four excellent panelists (Hennie Van Vuunen, Osama Diab, Gladwell Otieno and Transparency International Chair Jose Ugaz) all came out (unsurprisingly) against impunity and in favor of accountability. But as the subsequent discussion revealed, the impulse to hold the corrupt (fully) accountable sometimes conflicts with other legitimate interests. Although everyone agrees that those who commit corruption offenses should never have impunity, there are reasonable arguments for sometimes granting them (full or partial) immunity. Consider a few possible scenarios in which one might be tempted to exchange (full) accountability for something else: Continue reading

Singapore and Hong Kong Are Small. So What?

In my last post, I suggested some reasons why Singapore’s squeaky-clean reputation might not be entirely justified. But nothing I said in that post was meant to deny or disparage Singapore’s extraordinary success in fighting many of the most pervasive and destructive forms of corruption. Indeed, in this post I want to emphasize just how remarkably Singapore—and its fellow Asian city-state Hong Kong—have been in fighting corruption by addressing one of the most common observations raised by those who would either minimize the significance of this achievement, or raise doubts about whether other countries can profitably learn from Singapore and Hong Kong’s experience.

I’m sure many of us who work on international corruption issues have heard something like this from time to time: Whenever we look for success stories or models, someone usually brings up Hong Kong and Singapore as examples of how it is possible, with the right combination of policies and leadership, to get even massive corruption under control within the space of a generation. But, almost as invariably, we hear the skeptical response: “We can’t really learn all that much from Singapore and Hong Kong,” our skeptic intones, “because those are small city-states.”

Now, the skeptics may be right. But what’s always struck me as odd about this exchange (which I’ve heard many times, in one form or another) is that those offering this skeptical view seem to be implicitly assuming that it’s easier to combat corruption in a small city-state than it is in a large country, but they rarely explain why this is true. And at least to me, the case hardly seems self-evident. I’m not saying it’s wrong, but it certainly requires more critical scrutiny than it usually receives. Continue reading

Guest Post: “Global Cities–Joining Forces Against Corruption” Conference Recap, Part 1

Jennifer Rodgers and Gabriel Kuris, the Executive Director and Deputy Director, respectively, of the Columbia University Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity (CAPI), have provided a two-part series of guest posts summarizing CAPI’s recent conference on “Global Cities–Joining Forces Against Corruption”, which we previously advertised on GAB. This is the first of the two posts.

CAPI’s “Global Cities” conference brought together delegations from 14 cities across six continents to discuss the corruption challenges in urban settings and new ideas for reform. Videos of each speech and panel, presentation slideshows, and other conference materials are now available online. The discussion will continue on an online forum launching soon on the CAPI website, and those interested in participating in these online exchanges should feel welcome to register now. CAPI plans to periodically reprise the conference, with a shifting roster of cities, to build a coalition of cities on the vanguard of fighting urban corruption.

The conference commenced with keynotes addresses by the mayors of two historic cities working to boost transparency and public trust: Miguel Ángel Mancera of Mexico City and Giorgos Kaminis of Athens. Both mayors emphasized the empowerment of everyday citizens through new oversight mechanisms, cooperation with civil society, and emerging technologies—like Athens’s online budget monitoring tool. Both cities are also working to streamline legal regulations and public procedures, whether through Athens’s one-stop shops for citizen services or Mexico City’s legal reforms in public procurement and property registration.

The first panel, “The Shifting Landscape of Urban Corruption: New Challenges, New Approaches” examined the corruption issues cities currently face worldwide. Leaders of Western Australia’s Corruption and Crime Commission discussed their development of a “Misconduct Intelligence Assessment” tool to track the dynamic corruption risks of the modern boomtown of Perth. Chicago’s Inspector General spoke about emerging challenges such as the increasing prominence of quasi-governmental entities, the changing role of money in politics, and the grey areas of “legalized corruption.” Leaders from the anticorruption agencies of Catalonia and Kenya discussed the intersection between corruption, civic ethics, and public procurement.

The second panel, “Comeback Cities: Restoring Integrity after a Corruption Scandal”, covered the efforts of Toronto, Philadelphia, and New Orleans to break out of ceaseless cycles of scandal and clean-up to build resilient structures of oversight and civic cultures of lawfulness. Toronto’s Accountability Framework pioneered a new integrity model in a city reeling from a procurement scandal. Philadelphia’s Inspector General helped the city recover from high-level corruption so rampant the FBI wire-tapped the mayor’s office. Federal oversight is helping New Orleans to finally overhaul its notoriously corrupt police department. At the end of the panel, Frank Anechiarico of Hamilton College brought in comparative experience from Amsterdam, Hong Kong, and New York City from the volume he co-edited about city-level anti-corruption structures, Local Integrity Systems.

The third panel, “Bridging Political Boundaries: Partnering with National and State Government”, provoked some of the conference’s most engaged discussions. An aide to the mayor of Lviv, Ukraine, discussed how local activists whose reforms were frustrated by corruption at the national level helped upend national politics. Delegates from Nairobi and Chicago discussed collaboration between federal, regional, and local levels of law enforcement. Finally, GAB Senior Contributor Rick Messick brought an international-level perspective, emphasizing the counter-intuitive benefits of competition, rather than cooperation, among overlapping levels of government.

In our next post, we will summaraize the conference’s other speeches and panels, on topics ranging from the fight against corruption in post-Maidan Ukraine to the risks posed by cybercrime rings when cities host major events.