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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Scorpions with Wax Wings: How Anticorruption Agencies Can Avoid Flying Too Close to the Sun

Public rhetoric about the battle against corruption often centers on the need for “zero tolerance”–the need for institutions, including perhaps most importantly law enforcement agencies–to aggressively root out graft through vigorous prosecution, no matter the circumstances.  What more often goes unsaid, though, is that actually following such strategies may end up being counterproductive.  The aggressive pursuit of corruption-busting litigation can lead to political elites pulling the rug out from underneath the anticorruption agency (ACA).  In South Africa, for example, the National Assembly dissolved the Scorpions, a special investigative unit, once it began going after high-ranking government officials.

As a result of the danger of being undercut, ACAs face an inherent tension in their work: they want to fight corruption to the greatest extent possible, but fighting it too aggressively can lead to the agency’s ability to perform its duties being completely undercut.  How far, then, can an ACA push? Though the unique context of any given ACA means no universal lessons exist, there are some general guidelines ACAs should consider when shaping their anticorruption efforts, if they want to avoid a backlash that ultimately consolidates the power of the corrupt:

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