Depoliticizing the Removal of Heads of Anticorruption Agencies

In December 2017, a civil society organization that aligns itself with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte made good on its threat to submit an impeachment complaint against Conchita Carpio Morales, head of the Philippines’ independent anticorruption agency (ACA), known as the Office of the Ombudsman. This came after President Duterte himself called for the impeachment of Ombudsman Morales, publicly accusing her of engaging in “selective justice” and of being part of a “conspiracy” to oust him. Notably, President Duterte leveled these accusations at a time when the Office of the Ombudsman had opened an investigation into the Duterte family’s alleged hidden wealth, and into a multi-billion peso illegal drug trafficking case that implicates President Duterte’s son. This is hardly a unique case. In Nigeria, Nepal and Ukraine, among other places, conflicts between politicians and ACA heads have resulted in the latter’s actual or threatened removal.

Unfortunately, most countries place the decision whether to remove an ACA head in the hands of their politicians (see here and here). The Chief Executive often plays a key role in removals—sometimes on his or her sole authority (as in Afghanistan, Brazil, Botswana, South Korea, Mexico, Singapore, and Tanzania), or in conjunction with the legislature (as in Uganda and Lithuania) or a judicial body (as in Ghana and Kenya). In most other cases, the power of removal is exercised by parliament or any of its members or ministers, often through an “impeachment” process of some kind. Only Barbados, Bangladesh, and Yemen have removal procedures for ACA heads that are strictly and purely judicial in nature.

While there are, at present, no universally-accepted standards against which ACAs are measured, the non-binding 2012 Jakarta Statement on Principles for Anti-Corruption Agencies lays out principles for states to follow in establishing or maintaining effective ACAs. The Jakarta Statement’s position on appropriate procedures for removing an ACA head may be influential in shaping how at least some countries address this issue. And because the Jakarta Statement is currently being revisited (see here and here), now is an opportune time to consider revising its provision regarding the removal of ACA heads.

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A Tale of Two Regions: Anticorruption Trends in Southeast Asia and Latin America

OK, “best of times” and “worst of times” would be a gross exaggeration. But still, when I consider recent developments in the fight against corruption in Latin American and Southeast Asia, it seems that these two regions are moving in quite different directions. And the directions are a bit surprising, at least to me.

If you’d asked me two years ago (say, in the summer of 2014) which of these two regions provoked more optimism, I would have said Southeast Asia. After all, Southeast Asia was home to two jurisdictions with “model” anticorruption agencies (ACAs)—Singapore and Hong Kong—and other countries in the regions, including Malaysia and especially Indonesia, had established their own ACAs, which had developed good reputations for independence and effectiveness. Thailand and the Philippines were more of a mixed bag, with revelations of severe high-level corruption scandals (the rice pledging fiasco in Thailand and the pork barrel scam in the Philippines), but there were signs of progress in both of those countries too. More controversially, in Thailand the 2014 military coup was welcomed by many in the anticorruption community, who thought that the military would clean up the systemic corruption associated with the populist administrations of Thaksin Shinawatra and his successor (and sister) Yingluck Shinawatra—and then turn power back over to the civilian government, as the military had done in the past. And in the Philippines, public outrage at the brazenness of the pork barrel scam, stoked by social media, and public support for the Philippines’ increasingly aggressive ACA (the Office of the Ombudsman), was cause for hope that public opinion was finally turning more decisively against the pervasive mix of patronage and corruption that had long afflicted Philippine democracy. True, the region was still home to some of the countries were corruption remained pervasive and signs of progress were scant (such as Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar), but overall, the region-wide story seemed fairly positive—especially compared to Latin America where, aside from the usual bright spots (Chile, Uruguay, and to a somewhat lesser extent Costa Rica), there seemed to be precious little for anticorruption advocates to celebrate.

But now, in the summer of 2016, things look quite a bit different. In Southeast Asia, the optimism I felt two years ago has turned to worry bordering on despair, while in Latin America, things are actually starting to look up, at least in some countries. I don’t want to over-generalize: Every country’s situation is unique, and too complicated to reduce to a simple better/worse assessment. I’m also well aware that “regional trends” are often artificial constructs with limited usefulness for serious analysis. But still, I thought it might be worthwhile to step back and compare these two regions, and explain why I’m so depressed about Southeast Asia and so cautiously optimistic about Latin America at the moment.

I’ll start with the sources of my Southeast Asian pessimism, highlighting the jurisdictions that have me most worried: Continue reading