Guest Post: Connecting the Two Worlds of Anticorruption and Human Rights Activism

Today’s guest post is from Casey Kelso, a human rights and integrity consultant currently serving as Senior Advocacy Officer for Worldwide Initiatives for Grantmaker Support (WINGS), and Servaas Feieretag, an independent consultant on integrity and anticorruption who currently serves as the lead expert on the MATRA for enhancing the efficiency, accountability and transparency of the Judicial Council of North Macedonia .

The link between human rights and anticorruption has been much discussed over the past decade (see, for example, here and here), yet anticorruption activists often do not recognize themselves as human rights defenders, while human rights activists often fail to understand corruption as a human rights issue. In order to highlight the interconnections between the international anticorruption movement and the international human rights movement, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Mary Lawlor, has decided that her next report to the Human Rights Council in March 2022 will focus on threats to human rights defenders working directly on anticorruption issues. As she put it to us in a recent interview, “This issue of corruption comes up again and again in my conversations with human rights defenders, whether anticorruption work is the main focus of what they do or not.”

Corruption can cause or facilitate human rights violations in a host of ways. To illustrate with just a few examples: Continue reading

Will Afghanistan’s New Taliban Rulers Govern Corruptly?

On August 15, 2021, the Taliban marched into Kabul unopposed, toppling the Western-backed government. The Taliban came to power in a very corrupt country. Afghan police regularly used informal checkpoints to extort truck drivers. Education and banking were also rife with corruption. Some estimates put the amount of bribes paid annually in Afghanistan at somewhere between $2 and $5 billion, or about 13 percent of the country’s GDP. Afghan military commanders siphoned off huge amounts of money by listing non-existent soldiers in their units, and then pocketing the salaries of these “ghost soldiers.” And on top of all this, former president Ashraf Ghani allegedly stole over $100 million on his way out of Afghanistan. From top to bottom, Afghanistan had a major corruption problem. 

The Taliban, by contrast, cultivated a reputation for relatively clean government. During the Taliban’s previous reign, from 1996 until 2001, bribes were uncommon, and the justice system was viewed as comparatively honest (and certainly less corrupt than that of the Western-backed government established after the Taliban’s ouster). Over the last two decades, the justice administered by Taliban judges in areas under Taliban control has been popular among many Afghans precisely because they perceive it as less corrupt and more efficient. This may explain why, despite the Taliban’s extremism and abysmal human rights record, the group was viewed favorably by many ordinary Afghans—at least when contrasted with the Western-backed government. Many commentators have suggested this factor contributed to the Taliban’s takeover of the country (see here and here). And since the Taliban has come to power, early reports suggest that it is governing in a relatedly non-corrupt manner. For example, business owners in Kabul—often the targets of shakedowns by security forces under the Ghani government—note that Taliban security forces check in on them regularly to offer help with security, without demanding bribes. Afghans also report that the police no longer extort bribe payments from truckers, who now just pay a single toll to the Taliban. More generally, citizens in places like Kabul have offered positive preliminary assessments, regarding the comparatively lower corruption of the new Taliban government.

Does this mean that, notwithstanding the Taliban’s terrible record on other issues, the Taliban government is likely to continue governing the country relatively cleanly? There is no way to know, but there are good reasons to be skeptical. Those who welcomed the Taliban as a less corrupt alternative to the Western-backed government are likely to be disappointed.

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Guest Post. Corruption Victims: Law and Practice in Italy, Russia, other European States

Earlier this month, I asked readers for help on a UNODC project examining the compensation of corruption victims.  UNCAC article 35 requires states parties to ensure those injured by “an act of corruption” can initiate “legal proceedings. . . to obtain compensation.” In 2017, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported that virtually all 187 convention parties say their laws permit those injured by corruption to bring an action to recover damages. Yet few cases appear to have been brought.  The project seeks answers to three questions: Are there really few cases? If so, why? And what can be done to increase the number?

My thanks to the several readers who replied.  Thanks especially to Mjriana Visentin. An Italian lawyer with a Master’s Degree from the International Anticorruption Academy, Mjriana has been working on human rights and anticorruption for several years, most recently in Russia. She was kind enough to respond to my query with a thoughtful analysis reflecting both her experience representing victims of human rights abuses and corruption in Russia – categories which often overlap in practice – and current law on recovery of damages for corruption in Italy, other European states, and the European Court of Human Rights.  A valuable contribution to the global discussion on corruption victim compensation, it is below.  

Probably it would be useful to differentiate between types of corruption before discussing if victims did (or could) claim compensation.  If we are talking for example of extortion by a public official, I think that an analysis of the national case law will likely show a large number of individuals who were granted victim status and sought compensation.  [Editor’s note: a point I had not appreciated. I have subsequently learned that upon a conviction for extortion in Sri Lanka, defendants reportedly are required to return the bribe to the victim.  Example cases solicited from there or other jurisdictions.

As for other types of corruption, the situation may be more blurred.

Reviewing the laws of a number of European state members, I have seen that corruption still tends to be framed either as a victimless crime or crime against the state. This affects the view that potential victims have of themselves.

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Why (and How) the US Should Use “Sanctions Money” to Help Victims of Corruption 

Individually-targeted sanctions pursuant to the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act (GMA) have been used to hold individuals responsible for acts of grand corruption and human rights abuse in places like Russia and the DRC (explained here and here). Yet more can and should be done to compensate the victims of those same crimes. Advocates should push the US to use the compensatory mechanisms of other US sanctions regimes to strengthen the power of the GMA to compensate victims.

GMA sanctions, like other individually-targeted sanctions, are administered by a division of the US Treasury Department called the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). When an individual is placed on the US sanctions list—known as the “specially designated nationals” (SDN) list)—that individual’s US assets are frozen in an interest-bearing account until either the individual is removed from the SDN list or the assets are seized. In the interim, any US-dollar denominated transaction with those accounts is blocked. Moreover, any person subject to US jurisdiction who does business with any individual on the SDN list can be hit with a steep civil fines for every transaction with the blocked assets, which can cumulatively run into the millions, sometimes billions, of dollars.

Those two pots of money—the frozen assets of the individuals on the SDN list, and the fines imposed on those who violate the sanctions imposed on those SDNs—could and should be used to compensate the individuals victimized by the corruption or other wrongful conduct of those SDNs. Here’s how these approaches might work in the US context, given precedent of other sanctions regimes:

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Guest Post: Evaluating the Personal Privacy Objections to Public Beneficial Ownership Registries

Today’s guest post is from Adriana Edmeades-Jones and Tom Walker of The Engine Room:

The abuse of anonymous companies to facilitate corruption, tax evasion, and other sorts of criminal activity has prompted reformers to call for corporations and other legal entities to provide governments with accurate information on the true (or “beneficial”) human owners of these companies. Transparency advocates have argued that governments should not only compile such beneficial ownership registries, but should make them public.Public beneficial ownership registries, according to their proponents, would increase the efficiency of financial investigations, ease the due diligence burden on companies investigating supply chains and corporate counterparties, and enable media civil society to scrutinize more effectively who owns and controls what among the global corporate elite. Opponents have advanced multiple objections to creating public beneficial ownership registries, including questions about their accuracy and effectiveness, as well as concerns about the effect on individual privacy, and the associated risks that such public registries could facilitate “identity theft, cybercrime, and blackmail.”

How seriously should we take the “personal privacy” objection to public beneficial ownership registries? In a new report, OpenOwnership, The Engine Room, and the B Team propose a framework to evaluate this issue, borrowing from the structured analysis of international human rights law. Crucially, under international human rights law not every interference with personal privacy qualifies as a violation of an individual’s privacy rights. A violation only arises if the interference with privacy lacks a legitimate justification. Determining whether an interference with privacy is justified, in turn, entails addressing three questions: (1) Is the interference lawful (that is, consistent with generally-accepted standards governing personal information)? (2) Is the interference necessary to advance some legitimate aim? (3) Is the degree of interference proportionate to the legitimate end sought?

Application of these three criteria in turn suggests that an appropriately-designed public beneficial ownership registry would not violate individual privacy rights: Continue reading

Carr Center Conference on Human Rights and Corruption: Full Video

There’s been a great deal of recent interest, in both the anticorruption community and the human rights community, about the connections between these topics. Back in May 2018, the Carr Center for Human Rights at the Harvard Kennedy School held a conference on this topic (entitled “Corruption and Human Rights: The Linkages, the Challenges, and Paths for Progress”). I posted a link to the written summary report of the conference last summer. I’m now pleased to report that a full video of the all-day conference is available here.

It’s long (over 4 1/2 hours), so here’s a quick guide to what speakers and presentations you can find where: Continue reading

Guest Post: An International Anticorruption Court Is Not a Utopian Dream or a Distraction

Today’s guest post is from Richard Goldstone, a former Justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa who also served as the first chief prosecutor of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and Robert Rotberg, the President Emeritus of the World Peace Foundation and former professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

In a 2018 Daedalus article, Senior United States District Judge Mark L. Wolf explained that “The World Needs an International Anticorruption Court (IACC)” and charted a course for its creation. In a recent post on this blog, Professor Alex Whiting characterized the IACC as a “utopian” dream and possibly “a distraction from more effective responses to the worldwide scourge of grand corruption.” Notably absent from the post is a description of what the other effective responses to combating grand corruption might be.

In contrast to Professor Whiting, we found Judge Wolf’s original proposal for an IACC compelling. Therefore, we joined him in establishing Integrity Initiatives International (III). Continue reading

Carr Center Conference Report on Links Between Corruption and Human Rights.

The many potential connections between anticorruption and human rights have long been recognized, but this topic seems to have attracted increasing interest in recent years. Indeed, we’ve had a few posts on this blog about the topic (see, for example, here, here, here, and here). Last spring, I had the opportunity to attend a conference at the Harvard Kennedy’ School’s Carr Center for Human Rights devoted to this topic. The organizers of that event have put together a conference report, which summarizes the main presentations and discussions. I hope that report might be of interest to GAB readers. I gather that at some point a video recording of the conference will be available online; when it is, I will post the link (or at least highlights) as well, perhaps along with some additional commentary.

Will the Swiss Government Condone Gross Human Violations in Returning Stolen Assets to Uzbekistan?

The Swiss take pride in their nation’s uncompromising defense of human rights. Its diplomats offer unwavering support for the rights of the oppressed in international fora; its NGOs provide generous support to human rights defenders around the world, and as home to the United Nations Human Rights Council and other UN human rights agencies, Geneva is the center of the global discourse on human rights. But if recent press reports are to be believed (here [German] and here [English]), the Swiss government may be ready to ignore gross human rights violations perpetrated by the government of Uzbekistan.

The issue is part of the struggle over how to return the several hundred million dollars that Gulnara Karimova, daughter of its recently deceased dictator, stashed in Switzerland with the help of lackeys Gayane Avakyan and Rustam Madumarov. The monies are allegedly bribes international telecommunications companies paid Karimova to operate in Uzbekistan.

The Uzbek government is seeking their return while Uzbek civil society argues that because the government is so corrupt, the Swiss government should follow the precedent established in a Kazakh case and return the monies directly to the Uzbek people.  If the Swiss government does not, and does return the money to the Uzbek government, it will be forced to condone grave human rights abuses Avakyan and Madumarov have suffered at the hands of the Uzbek government. Continue reading

What the U.N. Treaty Bodies Have Said About Human Rights and Corruption

The nations of the world are parties to numerous treaties where they pledge to respect the rights of their citizens, everything from their civil and political rights to their right to economic development to the right to be free from torture.  Ten of these treaties have an expert body which periodically reports on a state’s compliance with the treaty’s provisions.  As the connection between corruption and human rights violations has become ever clearer, these treaty bodies have begun noting in their reports how corruption contributes to a state’s failure to comply with its human rights obligations.

The Geneva Centre for Civil and Political Rights recently combed through the hundreds of reports the treaty bodies have issued over the past decade to produce a summary and analysis of what they have said on the subject of human rights and corruption. Comments by UN treaty bodies on corruption is a valuable resource for both human rights advocates and anticorruption activists. My thanks to the Centre for producing it.