Guest Post: The Case for Corruption Truth Commissions

Today’s guest post is from Blair Glencorse, the Executive Director of the Accountability Lab, a civil society network that promotes accountability, transparency, and open government.

When corruption is deeply entrenched, it is very difficult to dislodge through criminal prosecution and similar law enforcement efforts. In systems that create very strong incentives to behave corruptly—those where powerful social norms favor graft over honesty—one can expect widespread resistance to attempts at stepped-up enforcement of anticorruption rules, given the number of people who might rationally fear being implicated in wrongdoing. Moreover, given the reluctance of participants in systemically corrupt regimes to disclose their illicit conduct and improper relationships, it is very hard to understand how the corrupt systems operate, who the most culpable perpetrators are, and how such systems can be more effectively dismantled.

A promising response to these problems might be drawn from the experience of addressing widespread human rights violations in moments of transition: truth commissions. While it would obviously be very difficult to set up such a commission during normal times, when the opportunity arises—say, after a regime change, or a significant political turnover sparked by popular protests against corruption—a country could set up an independent body—a corruption truth commission—to manage a process by which amnesty would be offered to those who had engaged in unlawful corrupt acts, in exchange for a full and truthful accounting of the corrupt conduct that they had perpetrated or witnessed.

This approach has several practical benefits. It creates a permanent record of the abuse of power, builds an evidence base to go after those perpetrators who either reject the offer of amnesty or are too high-level to be eligible, and can help countries recover ill-gotten assets. By exposing the workings of corrupt networks, corruption truth commissions would also help us better understand how to identify and counter corrupt networks before they can take root.

While the appropriate design of such a body would obviously depend on the specific circumstances of each individual country, five general principles are broadly applicable:

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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

Anticorruption Truth Commissions? Lessons to be Learned from Human Rights and Transitional Justice

A few months back, Anusha made the case for why “freedom from corruption” should not be regarded as a human right. She pointed out a number of legitimate distinctions between corruption and other human rights violations, as well as practical problems with framing corruption in this way. But there are other ways in which corruption does resemble a human rights violation: namely, in the harm it causes. Like widespread human rights abuses, the harm stemming from corruption is often diffuse and difficult to quantify, often with many victims (not always identifiable) and numerous perpetrators. For practical and functional purposes, in the case of systemic corruption–as in the case of regimes with pervasive human rights abuses–it may not be possible to make reparations to all of the victims or to hold all of the offenders to account.

Thus, even if it is impossible – or undesirable – to fully integrate the anticorruption and human rights agendas, it is still worth considering what lessons we can draw from the human rights regime and incorporate into the anticorruption field. Consider, in particular, one mechanism designed to deal with instances of mass atrocities and systematic human rights violations: the truth commission. In the human rights and transitional justice context, truth commissions are temporary bodies responsible for investigating and publicizing past rights abuses committed by public and private actors. As a general matter, truth commissions prioritize gathering information and establishing an accurate record over punitive sanctions. Truth commissions also often involve a quasi-judicial element – which frequently entails granting amnesty to certain actors or referring cases to prosecutorial entities – and emphasize “bottom-up” victim participation. Certain elements of the truth commission model may be instructive in designing justice measures for corruption crimes.

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